The Last Prophet

An Arabian orphan becomes an unlikely messenger of god.

By + More

Muslims know them as the Days of Ignorance, but the days in fact were centuries, stretching back to the dawn of history. It was the era before the arrival of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam—a time when the villagers and nomads of the Arabian Peninsula felt no loyalty to any group larger than their tribe. Yet for that tribe Arabs would steal, kill, or die. For spiritual support, clansmen worshiped man-made idols representing countless objects in nature: the moon, stars, animals, caves, rocks, and water springs.

But despite all the deities, the Arabs' chief sanctuary was a shrine dedicated to the Old Testament maxim that there is only one true God. According to legend, the Hebrew patriarch Abraham built the Kaaba, a cubelike structure in Mecca, to honor the Almighty and urged Arabs to visit it. That they did each year. During the Days of Ignorance, however, the Kaaba evolved into something very different. Arabs regarded Abraham's God as the supreme deity—Allah, they called him—but a deity that was remote and uninterested in ordinary people. So, over time, polytheism took hold. By A.D. 570, pilgrims in Abraham's shrine to the one true God were bowing to no fewer than 360 pagan objects.

In that year, near the Kaaba, was born one of the most important figures in history. The child never knew his father, a trader who had died months earlier. But it is said that his mother, Amina, was told in a dream: "You carry in your womb the lord of this nation." When the baby arrived, his grandfather cradled him in his arms and ran to the Kaaba. Amid cheers, the old man circled the shrine seven times, then announced the boy's name: Muhammad, for "highly praised."

Young Muhammad ibn Abdullah did not stay long in Mecca. When he was 6, his mother died with a fever. An impoverished uncle raised the orphan to manhood. At 12, Muhammad joined a caravan hauling silk and spices to Syria. Accounts have the train of camels pausing at a Christian monastery, where a monk asked Muhammad about his favorite idols. He hated idols, he replied. The holy man asked him to lift his shirt. On the boy's back, the monk is said to have found an egg-size birthmark. His conclusion: "This is the last prophet for whom the Jews and Christians await."

Back home in Mecca, the youth would toil as a goat herder, too poor to be tutored to read and write. But his work did not go unnoticed. He emerged from his teens with a nickname, "al-Amin" ("the Trustworthy"). At 25, he was hired to lead a caravan. Its owner, a rich widow named Khadija, liked the profit he generated. She also liked his looks and his soft-spoken personality. Although she was perhaps 15 years his senior, she proposed they wed, and he accepted. By all accounts, theirs was a happy marriage. She bore him six children—four healthy daughters and two sons who died in infancy—and gave him full control of her wealth. Yet he plainly had other things on his mind.

Muhammad had come to admire the morals of the Christians and the monotheism of the Jews. These "people of the book," he believed, drew strength from Scriptures representing God's word. But religion in Mecca, he felt, was a farce. The Quraysh, the aristocratic tribe that ran the city, were using the Kaaba as a tourist attraction, hawking trinkets to visitors. In addition, he loathed the arrogance of the rich and powerful. He was giving his business profits to the needy and yearned to do more. He began taking his worries to a mountain cave. There, for weeks, he fasted, meditated, and prayed.

One night in the year 610, when he was 40 and brooding alone, he experienced the defining moment of his life. According to Muslim tradition, the angel Gabriel appeared before him and delivered an order: "Recite!" Muhammad, terrified, asked, "What shall I recite?" "Recite in the name of your Lord who created," the angel replied. "Created man from clots of blood! Recite! Your Lord is the most bountiful one, who by the pen taught man what he did not know." Muhammad memorized and repeated the command. Later, a scribe would enter it into what became the Koran, the holy book of Islam. Over 22 years, the Koran's 78,000 words, all coming in revelations to Muhammad, would be set down in that manner.