It was the norm in Arabia for men to take many wives, but Muhammad remained monogamous to his first wife Khadijah throughout their marriage. A year after her death, he was encouraged to marry again. His subsequent marriages were formed for various reasons: to form alliances with other tribes in order to secure the survival of the Muslim community, to protect those who were threatened because of their faith, and to cement friendships. Many of his wives were widows with children, or divorcees. Aisha was the daughter of his closest friend Abu Bakr. Her marriage to Muhammad was arranged when she was very young, but their marriage was not consummated until she entered puberty. Aisha had an incredible intellect, and she became a respected scholar and was skilled in medical knowledge. She spoke of Muhammad’s kindness and generosity to all his wives, a quality that he insisted upon from every husband to their spouse.
The number of Muslims was growing, and along with it grew the need to live free of tyranny. Many people had embraced Islam in the city of Medina, some 200 miles from Mecca. Muhammad decided his companions should relocate to where they would enjoy the freedom of religious expression and the confidence of a being a real community. Agreements were made with the Jews, Christians and pagans of Medina, and all lived in protection, liberty and coexistence.
The move was a blow to the pride of the Quraysh who still tormented the few Muslims who remained in Mecca. In addition to their persecution, they confiscated all their property and belongings to show Muhammad that he had not won. Incensed by news of this, Muhammad organised expeditions on Meccan caravans in order to take compensation. He also sent missions to find out information of the Quraysh’s plots – he knew that an attack was likely. Yet one mission resulted in the death of a Quraysh leader despite Muhammad’s clear instruction that no conflict was to take place. A clash was imminent.
For the past thirteen years until this point, the Muslims were instructed in passive resistance, but a revelation now gave permission to fight those who oppressed them and had driven them from their homes.
Muhammad had set off with over three hundred Muslims to intercept a caravan in order to take more goods in compensation, but the Quraysh found out about his plans and sent a thousand-strong army. The Muslims were not prepared for war, but they were determined to face their enemies. They won an incredible victory in what came to be known as the Battle of Badr.
The conflict was not at an end however, and more wars took place between the Quraysh, their allies and the Muslims, the latter suffering many losses. Muhammad now had military and political power, sending a strong message that he and his people would not be trampled upon any further. As his influence increased, so too did attempts to assassinate him.
After years of hostility, power shifted towards Muhammad and the Muslims, and a treaty was finally agreed between the Quraysh and Muhammad, but this was violated by the former and Muhammad marched on Mecca in 630. But he took Mecca without bloodshed, peaceably and with dignity. Muhammad was in a position of power to seek revenge on those who had tortured and persecuted the Muslims, but he did not abuse his power, choosing instead to conquer Mecca with profound humility. His great mercy and compassion deeply impressed the tribes of Mecca, and a great number embraced Islam.
The Farewell Pilgrimage
Muhammad, accompanied by one hundred thousand of his companions, performed the final pilgrimage of his life to the Kaba in Mecca. Standing on what is known as the Mount of Mercy, he delivered his last speech with messages that would resound through time. He spoke of the equality of humankind, of women’s rights, of fraternity, of doing good, of never oppressing anyone, of human rights and justice.
Soon after the farewell sermon, Muhammad fell very ill with a fever which weakened him greatly. Though frail, he led his last prayer in the mosque in Medina, and repeated again and again that the poor and the vulnerable must be treated well. His final moments were with his wife Aisha. He rested his head in her lap while she stroked his head. Suddenly she felt his head become heavier. He had breathed his last breath.
He died in 632 aged sixty three.
Muhammad caused a revolution in the space of twenty three years, shaping the course of history. His commitment to the enduring values of justice, freedom, fraternity, charity and equality carried a universal message that prevails to this day. What began as a small band of followers in seventh century Arabia has now grown to a global community of 1.5 billion, a fifth of the world’s population.
Muslims everywhere model their own lives on his behaviour, from prayer to politics, personal hygiene to community involvement. This one man continues to inspire millions of lives fourteen centuries after he lived.