Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): Life Before the Revelation

Early Childhood

He was born as Muhammad ibn Abdullah (pbuh) in the year 570 CE in Mecca. He was a direct descendant of Ismaeel through Ibrahim. His father’s name was Abdullah and his mother’s name was Amina. His father died a few months before his birth on a business trip.

After he was born, he was sent by his mother to live with a Bedouin family for a few years in the desert and be nursed, as desert life was customarily considered healthier for infants. There Muhammad (pbuh) stayed with his foster-mother, Halimah bint Abi Dhuayb, and her husband until he was two years old. An incident occurred with him when he was living with his foster-mother in the desert as a young boy as related by his companion Anas:

The angel Jibril came to the Messenger of Allah while he was playing with some boys. He took hold of him and laid him down. He split open his chest and took out a portion of clotted blood and said, “This is the portion of Satan in you.” After washing it [meaning his heart] in a gold vessel with the water of Zamzam, he mended it, and returned it to its place. The other children ran to his foster-mother, and cried that Muhammad been killed When they reached him, they found that he had changed color. Anas said [after relating the incident], “I used to observe the mark left by the stitches on his chest.” 

This incident frightened the foster family so they took him back to his mother.

After his return from the desert, he stayed with his mother until the age of six when she also died during a trip. She had taken him to Yathrib (which later became known as Medina) to meet his extended family and introduce him to the city. They ended up spending one month in Yathrib. However, after having traveled only 23 miles from Yathrib back towards Mecca accompanied by her slave Umm Ayman, Aminah fell ill and eventually died. She was buried in the village of Abwa’.

After the death of his mother, the custody of Muhammad (pbuh) moved to his paternal grandfather Abdul Muttalib. His grandfather was a highly respectable figure in Arabia at that time and was the leader of his clan called the Banu Hashim. In fact, it was Abdul Muttalib who had rediscovered the well of Zamzam after it had been lost for a long time. For the next two years, he remained under his grandfather’s care but he too died when Muhammad (pbuh) was eight years old.

After his grandfather’s death, Muhammad’s (pbuh) uncle Abu Talib took over and cared for him until his adulthood. His uncle was now also the chief of the clan after Abdul Muttalib’s death. In his teens, Muhammad (pbuh) accompanied his uncle on Syrian trading journeys to gain experience in commercial trade, a common profession among his people. When he was either nine or twelve while accompanying his uncle in one of these trips, he met a Christian monk named Bahira who is said to have foreseen Muhammad’s (pbuh) career as a prophet of God. He warned his uncle to take him away from the city because if others recognized him as he had, they would try to kill him. It is also recorded that he used to herd sheep as a child as well.

Early Adulthood

In adulthood, he became a successful trader. His reputation for honesty in business led a wealthy widow named Khadijah to hire him. She sent him to one of her business trips with her servant Maysarah. Muhammad (pbuh) returned with double the profit and her servant highly praised him. She was impressed by Muhammad’s (pbuh) manners, honesty, kindness, and character.

After consultation, she decided to send a proposal for marriage to him. She had already numerous proposals from wealthy men but had refused them all. When Muhammad (pbuh) received the proposal, he consulted with his uncle Abu Talib, who agreed to the marriage. Then he accompanied his uncle to make a formal proposal to Khadijah’s uncle, who also accepted, and then they were married. Muhammad (pbuh) was 25 years old at the time but Khadijah was 40 although some scholars differ and say she was only a few years older. Regardless, it is accepted that she was older.

They both had six children together (four girls and two boys). Some sources state they had seven children. Muhammad (pbuh) sons died while still infants and only the daughters survived into adulthood. In fact, all of his children died in his lifetime except Fatima, who lived up to six months after his death. The order of his children during this time is as follows: his son Qasim (died at two years of age), daughters Zaynab, Ruqayyah, Umm Kulthum and Fatima, and finally his son Abdullah (died in infancy). His son Abdullah was also known as at-Tayyib (“the Good”) and at-Tahir (“the Pure”) because he was born after the divine revelation.

Two other children also lived in Khadijah’s household: Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son of Muhammad’s (pbuh) uncle Abu Talib; and Zayd ibn Harithah, a boy from the Udhra tribe who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Zayd was a slave in Khadijah’s household for several years, until his father came to Mecca to bring him home. Muhammad (pbuh) insisted that Zayd be given a choice about where he lived. Zayd decided to remain with Khadijah and Muhammad, after which Muhammad legally adopted Zayd as his own son.

Muhammad (pbuh) was very loyal and loving towards Khadijah and never took a co-wife during her lifetime even though it was customary. They remained happily married for about 25 years until her death.

Even as a young adult, Muhammad (pbuh) was well respected among his people and very much liked. They used to give him their most valuable possessions to keep safe for them. They also used to involve him in important decisions because of his wisdom and maturity despite his young age. He had acquired the nickname Al-Amin (the trustworthy one) due to his honesty and upright character. There is a particular story that happened during this time in his life that is often cited and is worthy of mention because it shows how much he was valued by his people:

The Black Stone was removed during renovations to the Kaaba. The Meccan leaders could not agree which clan should have the honor of returning the Black Stone to its place. In fact, they were about to go to war over it. They decided to ask the next man who comes through the gate to make that decision; that man happened to be the 35-year-old Muhammad (pbuh). They were all happy and glad that it was him and shouted, “It’s Al-Amin!”

Muhammad (pbuh) asked for a cloth and laid the Black Stone in its center. The clan leaders held the corners of the cloth and together carried the Black Stone to its rightful spot, then Muhammad (pbuh) laid the stone in its place with his own hands, satisfying the honor of all.

Further, he was very active in his community even as a young man and didn’t stand on the side idly complaining without doing anything to change the situation. Perhaps the most well known incident in this regard before his prophetic mission began is the story of Hilf Al-Fudul, a pact among Meccan respectable individuals and leaders. The alliance stressed commercial justice in Mecca after an incident that caused a man to unjustly lose his property. Muhammad (pbuh) was also present when it was established and was very fond of it stating later in life even after being forced to leave Mecca, due to his prophetic mission, that he still supports it.

Muhammad (pbuh) was also known to be very open and kind towards orphans having experienced it first hand.

The Divine Revelation Begins

Despite all of the above, Muhammad (pbuh) was very spiritual and was not satisfied with his people’s ways of worship. He would not participate in their festivals or religious ceremonies. Instead, he used to seclude himself every few months for weeks on end in a cave called Hira on top of a mountain outside of Mecca to meditate and reflect over the creation. His wife Khadijah used to bring him or send him food. A bit before he started secluding himself, he had begun having dreams that would become true.

At the age of 40, it was during one of these meditation trips to the cave of Hira in the month of Ramadan during the night of power (Laylah tul Qadr) that the Angel Jibraeel visited him. The angel grabbed him and squeezed him very tightly to the point that he could not breathe and asked him to recite. However, since the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) could not read nor write, he told him that he was not a reader. Jibraeel repeated the same procedure again and the prophet again told him that he couldn’t read. After the third attempt, the angel recited the following verses after squeezing him tightly and releasing him: Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists), created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous [Qur’an 96:1-3]. These three Qur’anic verses were the first to be revealed to Muhammad (pbuh).

This incident terrified the prophet so much that he ran down the mountain and back to his house and requested Khadijah to cover him. He was shivering with fright. After his fear settled, he explained to her all that had happened on top of the mountain and that he feared something bad may happen to him. However, his wife comforted him with the following words: “Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your kith and kin, help the poor and the destitute, serve your guests generously and assist the deserving calamity-afflicted ones.”

She then took him to her cousin Waraqa bin Naufal, who had converted to Christianity and was very learned. He was quite old now in age and had lost his eyesight. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) explained the whole incident to him. After listening to him, Waraqa said, “This is the same one who keeps the secrets (angel Jibraeel) whom Allah had sent to Moses. I wish I were young and could live up to the time when your people would turn you out.” Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) asked, “Will they drive me out?” Waraqa replied in the affirmative and said, “Anyone (man) who came with something similar to what you have brought was treated with hostility; and if I should remain alive till the day when you will be turned out then I would support you strongly.” But after a few days Waraqa died.

Here’s a video version of this article we put together

Recommended English Books and Lectures on Prophet Muhammad’s Life (Seerah)

It is important to study the seerah (prophet’s life) from beginning to end in order to properly understand the context and why and how things developed the way that they did. It is also one of the fundamental ways to build love of the Messenger (pbuh) in one’s heart. How can we love someone we do not know? Unfortunately, it seems many Muslims have either never studied his life or are only familiar with cherry picked popular snippets from his life. This is not the same as truly knowing him because for that we must study his life. Another benefit of studying the seerah, especially in details, is that it gives a more deeper understanding of the Qur’an. Many verses in the Qur’an are engaging directly with the incidents surrounding the Muslims in the Arabian peninsula and studying seerah provides us the full context of why certain verses came down the way that they did.

Here is a list of few sources in English that you can use in order to study the blessed life of Muhammad (pbuh) from beginning to end. Ideally, we should all strive to go through his whole life once a year:

Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings – This one is also available on YouTube as a free audiobook. It is a good short book and you can listen to the whole thing in 5.5 hours. It is a popular book among both Muslims and non-Muslims. However, I would highly advise to go through Sh. Hamza Yusuf’s lectures that go along with it as a supplement. Sh. Hamza explains the book in this series of lectures and provides further details missed by Lings and points out some mistakes made in the book as well.

Muhammad: Man and Prophet by Adil Salahi – This is one of my favorites and frankly the best one I like. It is also available as a free audiobook here. This was the first time when I actually “understood” the seerah and kept up with the names and dates. It is very well written and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Fiqh Us Seerah: Understanding the life of Prophet Muhammad by Muhammad Ghazali – This is by the recent Ghazali from the 20th century and not the classical Ghazali. It is easy to read and draws on practical lessons that can be derived from the various stages in the Prophet’s (pbuh) life.

The Jurisprudence of the Prophetic Biography by al-Buti – This is an English translation of Sh. al-Buti’s famous book. Some have claimed that this is perhaps one of the best books written in recent times on the topic of seerah.

When the Moon Split by Mubarakpuri – If you wan to read seerah without delving in to too many details, then this is the book for you. It’s precise and beautifully written. It is also available on YouTube as an audiobook.

Sirat Ibn Hisham by Ibn Hisham – This is a translation of an abridged version of one of the primary and earliest sources for the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) life.

The Life of Muhammad (pbuh) by Imam Nawawi – This is a brief work of only 96 pages and provides glimpses of the various aspects of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) life. It does not go into much details. It is an English translation of an extract from one of Imam Nawawi’s books. It is a good resource to check quick facts about his life. The footnotes provided by the editor are also helpful and give further details of differences of opinion over various facets of his life and whether the stated fact is based on a reliable source or not.

Muhammad the last Prophet: A Model for All Time by Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi – This is written by one of the most influential Muslims of the 20th century. Nadwi was not just an Islamic scholar but also a historian. He also wrote another more detailed book on the topic that you can read as well. There is a third book on the topic as well written by him specifically for Tableeghi Jama’at focusing on brevity. This third version is very straightforward and can even be given to kids in middle school to read.

Life of the Final Messenger by Mufti Menk – This is a lecture series by Mufti Menk, a popular Muslim preacher from Zimbabwe. He covers the seerah in 29 lectures about an hour each. It’s precise, draws lessons from the different phases of the prophet’s (pbuh) life to implement today, and mentions Qur’anic verses that came down in the different stages of the Prophet’s (pbuh) life and the reasoning behind them. He also delves into many tangents on the side related to whatever he’s covering in that moment, it gets a little annoying sometimes but there are good lessons in them as well.

Seerah of Prophet Muhammad by Yasir Qadhi – This is perhaps the most thorough and detailed lecture series on the life of the Messenger (pbuh) done in the English language.

Noble Life of the Prophet (3 Vols.) by Ali Muhammad As-Sallaabee – This is recommended by some popular Muslim speakers and is considered a must review if you want to teach seerah.

al-Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya by Imam Tirmidhi – The English translation of the famous classical work that presents us detailed descriptions of the moral, physical and spiritual qualities of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The translators also include footnotes from well-known commentaries on the book.

al-Shifa by Qadhi Iyadh – This is an English translation of the famous classical book Al-shifa bi ta’rif huquq al-Mustafa (Healing by the recognition of the Rights of the Chosen one). The whole point of his book is to build a strong sense of awe and love of the Messenger (pbuh) in the person’s heart and to make you realize why he is so important. He attempts to emotionally connect the reader to the beloved of Allah (pbuh). It heavily focuses on the Prophet’s character, qualities, virtues, and miracles. It’s beautifully written. If you read it properly, you would not pass a day except by sending darood on the Messenger (pbuh). Now, there are some really weak stuff in the book as well and you can refer to a critical annotated commentary of it by Ali Kawshk. However, it is only available in Arabic. The number of these weak reports in the book are not a lot and does NOT take away from the overall value of this masterpiece at all. The translation is done by none other than Aisha Bewley, who is one of today’s most prolific translators of classical Arabic works into English. For more than thirty-five years she has been concerned with making the contents of many classical Arabic works more accessible to English-speaking readers. I trust her translations.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): Life Before the Revelation – This is a short article that I put together summarizing his life before the revelation came down.