The Last Prophet

An Arabian orphan becomes an unlikely messenger of god.


But unity in Islam's first theocracy was far from complete. Muhammad declared people free to worship as they wished. His Muslims were following the Jewish practices of fasting on Yom Kippur and facing Jerusalem while praying. In turn, he expected Jews to accept Muslim ways. But after Jews mocked his revelations and scorned his interpretation of their Scriptures, he changed fast days and redirected prayers toward Mecca. And the prophet turned warrior.

On one front were the Quraysh of Mecca. On another were the Jews of Medina, whom he now deemed Quraysh sympathizers. He hit the Meccans first, attacking their caravans. In one raid, his 300 men were confronted by 900 Quraysh. Surprisingly, he won. Arabs saw the victory as divine support for his cause. Three years later, a Quraysh force of 10,000 approached Medina. Muhammad, again outnumbered, confused the attackers by digging a trench around the city. The Quraysh force staged a two-week siege, then went home. Never again would Mecca threaten Medina.

Amid the frays with Mec-ca, Muhammad pressed his campaign against the three Jewish tribes of Medina. Two of the clans were ordered to leave town. But the third tribe, accused of helping the enemy in the Battle of the Trench, was not so lucky: The men were beheaded and the women and children sold into slavery.

In 628, Muhammad and 1,400 Muslims set out for Mecca—not as warriors but as pilgrims bent on visiting the Kaaba shrine. Outside the city, they met a Quraysh force. Instead of fighting, the two sides made a treaty declaring a truce and allowing Kaaba visits in subsequent years. But the truce collapsed, giving Muhammad cause to gather 10,000 men and march on Mecca. The city fell in 630, and the one-time orphan entered his birthplace as a conqueror. Inside the Kaaba, Muslims smashed every idol, sparing only the Black Stone, a meteorite on display, it was said, since the days of Abraham. "God has done away with the evils of ignorance," Muhammad told a crowd outside the shrine. "Blind loyalty to tribe is gone forever. All human beings are brothers to each other."

Men who had been his deadliest foes now embraced his faith. Soon, nearly every tribe in Arabia left paganism for Islam, and Muhammad stood as the absolute ruler of a strong new state. Followers, craving magic cures for their ailments, collected his cut hair, fingernail clippings, and spittle. But he continued to stress that he was mortal, "a man like other men." Aside from matrimony, his habits were simple enough. He ate dates and gruel, preferred rainwater over wine, slept on a mat, patched his clothes, mended his sandals, swept floors, and milked the family goat. What he enjoyed most, he once said, were prayers, pleasant fragrances, and women.

Living with him in the Medina mosque were 10 wives, most of them the widows of fallen Muslims or the kin of his political allies. He had no room of his own. But each wife had an apartment, and he moved each day from one spouse to another. He tried to treat all equally, as required by the Koran. But every 10 nights, the aging Sawdah forfeited her evening to Muhammad's favorite, the young Aisha. Another holy rule, limiting harems to four wives, came too late for the Prophet to comply.

When he fell gravely ill, the wives agreed he should stay with Aisha. On June 8, 632, he asked her to dispose of his last worldly goods—seven coins—and murmured his final words: "Rather, God on High and paradise." He died at 63 with his head resting on her lap.

The wailing of the wives told people outside that Muhammad was gone. But some refused to believe he was dead. Surely he will return, one declared. Then Muhammad's closest friend—Aisha's father, Abu Bakr—stepped forward. "If anyone worships Muhammad, know that Muhammad has died," he shouted. "But if anyone worships God, then know that he is alive and cannot die."

To stress the point, Abu Bakr recited a verse from the Koran: "Muhammad is no more than a messenger.... If he dies or is killed, would you then turn around and run?"