MUHAMMAD WAS BORN AN ORPHAN. HIS FATHER, Abdullah, had died some time before his birth. Abdullah had been the favorite son of Abdul Muttalib, and the latter was delighted at the news of the birth of Abdullah’s son, whom he took under his care and protection. In conformity with a practice followed by urban families, Abdul Muttalib entrusted the young Muhammad to the care of Haleema, a member of a desert‑dwelling tribe, to be nurtured and brought up in the fresh air of the desert. Haleema’s little charge spent three or four years in the desert with his foster parents, being taken at intervals into town so that his mother and grandfather could be reassured with regard to his health and well‑being.
Muhammad entertained grateful memories of Haleema’s care, and always accorded her the respect and affection due to a mother. In Muhammad’s case these sentiments may have been deepened by the sad bereavement he suffered shortly after his return to his mother’s care, for his mother died while on a journey to Mecca from Medina, where she had gone with Muhammad to visit some of her relatives. The little boy was thus deprived of the love and care of his mother during his early boyhood. Not long afterward, the death of his grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, removed not only the head of the family but also the person who had been in the place of a father to him since birth.
Muhammad now passed under the care of his uncle, Abu Talib, who had several children of his own and was by no means well-off. Muhammad shared whatever was available with the rest of the family, and was accorded a mother’s care and affection by his aunt. He had affectionate recollections of all that his aunt had done for him and had meant to him. Many years later, when she died at a ripe old age, the Prophet himself lowered her body into the grave, and said of her: “Thou were ever an affectionate mother to me.”
Enough is known of the youth and early manhood of Muhammad to indicate that he was gentle, patient, and obedient, respectful toward his elders, affectionate with his companions, and full of compassion for those who, on account of age, infirmity, or adversity, stood in need of help. As he grew to manhood, his good qualities were recognized by his contemporaries. They were impressed by his complete integrity, in word and deed, and he became generally known among them as “El‑Ameen,” meaning “the Trusty,” or “the Faithful.”
At home he helped with the household chores, and outside he assisted his uncle by carrying out such tasks and duties as pertained to him or were assigned to him. On one occasion, at least, he accompanied his uncle in a trade caravan to Syria. During the course of this journey, Abu Talib observed that his young nephew possessed a reserved and retiring disposition, betrayed no inclination toward levity or indulgence, and was indeed a person of modesty and good sense‑a sharp contrast to the behavior of other young men of similar situation whom Abu Talib knew.
While still a young man, Muhammad was employed as a trade agent by Khadeeja, a wealthy, middle‑aged widow of Mecca in business on her own, and he proceeded in that capacity on one or two journeys with a trade caravan. He acquitted himself so well in the discharge of his duties that each venture brought considerable profit to his employer. She received favorable reports of his deportment, habits, and behavior. This must have confirmed the good impression that she had herself conceived of the young man’s person and character, and she made up her mind to send him an offer of marriage. When the offer was communicated to Muhammad through his uncle, he took counsel with the latter, who advised acceptance, and the match was concluded.
Muhammad was twenty‑five when he married Khadeeja, who was forty, had been twice widowed, and had had children. In making his own decision Muhammad must have been principally influenced by the kindly treatment Khadeeja had accorded him while he worked for her, and the good impression her other qualities had made on him It is true Khadeeja was wealthy, but this could not have influenced Muhammad, for it is well known that when Khadeeja placed all her resources at her husband’s disposal, he distributed the greater part of her goods and property among the poor, the needy, and the afflicted, and set free all her slaves. He thus voluntarily chose a life of poverty for himself and his wife, and it speaks highly of Khadeeja’s deep affection fox her husband and of her lofty character that she accepted his choice cheerfully.
The marriage, despite the disparity in age and affluence, proved a very happy one. Khadeeja bore Muhammad several children; of these, the sons died in infancy, but the daughters grew to womanhood and in due course married. The descendants of only one daughter, Fatima, who was married to the Prophet’s cousin Ali, son of his uncle Abu Talib, have survived. All those who today claim direct descent from the Prophet are descended through Fatima and her two sons, Hasan and Husain. The latter suffered martyrdom near Kerbala in Iraq, where he is buried.
When at home Muhammad occupied himself, as was his wont, in helping with the household tasks and taking care of his wife and children. He took no prominent part in the life of the city, but did not withdraw himself altogether from it.
Muhammad was a loving and affectionate husband, showing tender regard and consideration for Khadeeja; she, on her part, was so devoted a wife that when, fifteen years after their marriage, her husband received the Divine Call, she responded to it immediately, and was a constant source of comfort and support to him throughout the remaining ten years of their life together.
We have, in the previous chapter, attempted an outline of the conditions that prevailed in Arabia at the time of Muhammad’s birth and during his youth and early manhood. The preoccupations and pursuits of an average young man of Mecca at that period would comprise a routine of trade, hunting, gambling, participation in drinking bouts (to which those who could afford it invited their friends as often as five times a day), and the indulgences attendant thereupon. This routine was, of course, diversified in individual cases under stress of personal needs and inclinations, family circumstances, or tribal emergencies. Life was subject to many hazards, and resort to arms was had at the slightest provocation. Long‑pursued vendettas, often originating in slight incidents, exacted a heavy toll.
From his earliest youth Muhammad kept aloof from all this. He possessed a sensitive mind and a grave and serene disposition. He felt keenly the distress of his fellow beings and reacted very sharply to it, affording such relief and assistance as were within his power.
On one occasion he observed an old slave laboring hard to fulfill his task of drawing water in a heavy bucket for tending his master’s garden. Muhammad went to his assistance and drew up a quantity of water, which gave relief to the old man for a short while, so that he could rest and husband his failing strength. Muhammad spoke cheering and comforting words to him, and on leaving him said: “Whenever you feel you are in need of help you can call on Muhammad.” Many such incidents are on record.
That which affected his mind most deeply and painfully, however, was the moral and spiritual decline into which his people had fallen, and from which he could see no way of rescuing them, save through Divine guidance and help. He himself had never bowed to an idol or indulged in any idolatrous practices. On the physical side, he had preserved complete purity; he had never gambled or taken liquor, and had led an absolutely chaste life. He enjoyed the trust of his fellow townsmen, and was held in respect by them. An illustration of both the position which he occupied even as a young man in Mecca, and the wise understanding that was characteristic of him is furnished by the story about the Black Stone.
As already observed, the Ka’aba and its precincts were the center of Meccan life, and a great part of the prosperity of the town was connected with the Ka’aba, as the principal resort of pilgrimage in Arabia. The structure of the Ka’aba had fallen into disrepair, and it was decided to rebuild it. The famous Black Stone ‑a cornerstone, probably of meteoric origin‑had to be replaced in position in the southeastern angle of the walls. Several leading families of the Qureish coveted the honor of placing the stone in position, and vehemently pressed their claim. The controversy became heated, tempers rose, and threats were uttered that the sword would be the arbiter. Someone suggested that the matter might be settled peacefully through arbitration. Muhammad chanced to enter the enclosure of the Ka’aba at that moment, and it was agreed that the dispute should be referred to him, and that his decision should be accepted. After ascertaining the cause of the argument, Muhammad spread out his cloak on the ground and placed the Black Stone on it. He then invited the leading members of the families that desired to have the honor of placing the stone in position to lift the cloak and carry the stone in this manner next to the angle of the wall where it had to be placed. Muhammad then lifted the stone and placed it in position. This satisfied everybody, and resolved a situation that had threatened to become grave to the point of possible bloodshed.
Though ever ready to promote justice and orderliness, and to soften, so far as it lay in his power, the hardships of life for those in distress, Muhammad continued to be tormented by the spectacle of the moral and spiritual degradation of his people, and his mind and soul were in constant travail over it. At the invitation of three young men‑each named Fadhal‑Muhammad entered into a mutual pledge to go to the assistance of any person who was oppressed by another, to obtain justice for him. That Muhammad did not regard the pledge lightly will appear later.
For the purpose of communing with himself and imploring the light and guidance of the Supreme Being concerning the problems that troubled his mind and soul, he formed the habit of retiring, for several days at a time, to a cave on one of the hills a few miles out of Mecca. There he occupied himself in prayer and contemplation. Taking with him a quantity of dates and a little water by way of provisions, he would spend his days and nights in self-examination, in reflecting on the problems that troubled him, and in prayer and supplication to God. There is no record of the struggle that went on in his soul during these periods of retreat. Muhammad was not a man who talked much about himself. Indeed, he spoke only when the need for speaking arose, and then as briefly as the occasion would permit. With regard to his mental processes and his spiritual reactions during the years between his marriage to Khadeeja and his receipt of, and response to, the Divine Call, we can only speculate. In the nature of things it is not granted to any of us to probe into the depths of another’s soul, to appraise accurately and completely its travail and its ecstasies. That is a holy secret between each individual and his Maker. Those years were, however, years of preparation, when Muhammad’s soul was being deepened and proved and made ready for the heavy responsibility that the Divine Will had decreed should be placed on him.
In the Quran we read God’s word concerning Moses: “I wrapped thee with love from Me, and this I did that thou mightest be reared before My eye …. We proved thee in various ways . . . . Then thou camest up to the standard, O Moses, and I chose thee for Myself” (20:40‑42)
As with Moses, so with Muhammad.
Muhammad is reminded of this in the Quran: “Did He not find thee an orphan and take thee under His protection? He found thee perplexed in search of Him and guided thee unto Himself. He found thee in want and provided thee with abundance” (93:7‑9).