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.
When the angel withdrew, Muhammad darted home. Trembling with fright, he asked Khadija to cover him with a blanket. Then he again heard Gabriel's voice. "You that are wrapped up in your vestment, arise and give warning."
Khadija believed her husband indeed was hearing God's word. But Muhammad worried that he had lost his mind. He returned to the cave. For two years, he heard nothing. In despair, a biographer wrote, he pondered jumping off the mountain. As he was about to leap, he heard Gabriel: "Muhammad! Thou art the messenger of God." From that moment, says the medieval source, "the Prophet never again faltered. Revelations thereafter steadily increased."
Soon the illiterate herdsman who sounded like a poet was preaching on the streets. He spoke of the end of the world, a warning that convinced many he was a driveling stargazer. Their amused indulgence turned to hostility when he told Kaaba visitors to forsake their idols and make Allah the center of their lives or burn in Hell. Suddenly he was not a harmless kook but a menacing revolutionary. The controlling Quraysh feared he might wreck their pilgrimage trade. Nor were they pleased when he said the poor would enter heaven before the rich.
The Quraysh told Meccans not to trade or associate with Muhammad's followers. Some of the Muslims, as they would be called, nearly starved. In two years, the ban ended, but persecution continued. Believers were beaten and stoned. Mu-hammad was pelted with garbage and a sheep's uterus. In 619, he lost his most loyal supporter when his wife died. Although many men in the seventh century practiced polygamy, Khadija had been his lone mate for 25 years.
About that time, in his darkest hour, Muham-mad had the supreme mystical experience of his life. The event, revered by Muslims as the Night Journey, is said to have opened with Gabriel's awakening Muhammad one evening and telling him to mount a winged mule. Together they flew from Mecca to Jerusalem. From there, legend has Muhammad rising into heaven and being greeted by past prophets—Abraham, David, Moses, and Jesus. He reached Allah's throne and heard a command that Muslims observe ritual prayers 50 times a day. On the way down, he again saw Moses, who told him people were too weak to do 50 prayers a day. Muhammad went back to Allah and got the number cut to five.
The next morning, Muhammad told people he had been to Jerusalem and back overnight. "Madman!" they shouted. The legend of the flight would make Jerusalem one of Is-lam's holy cities. But years went by before Muhammad publicly added that his trip included a stop in heaven.
A year after Khadija died, Muhammad's housekeeper told him he should marry again. As prospects, she named Sawdah, a homeless widow, and Aisha, a daughter of one of his strongest supporters. He decided to marry both. Right away, he wed the widow. But Aisha, not yet 10, remained with her parents for two or three years before Muhammad consummated their union.
Outside his home, the Prophet struggled to protect his followers from a host of hardships, including torture and loss of property. Some were even murdered, it is said, and the Quraysh were plotting to kill Muhammad, too. Then came a fateful invitation.
Several men from Medina, an oasis 250 miles north of Mecca, heard and liked Muhammad's message. They asked him to arbitrate a deadly tribal feud in their city. What followed was the seminal event in Islamic history, the migration, or hegira, of the Prophet and 70 fellow Muslims from Mecca to Medina. It was the Christian year 622. Muslims call it the Year One.
The men from Medina hoped that one of Muhammad's main themes—faith supplants tribal ties—would bring people together. "If that ever happened," one man told him, "you would be the strongest man in Arabia." Sure enough, Medina's Arabs quit feuding and accepted Islam, and Muhammad emerged as a political as well as religious leader. He collected taxes, dispensed justice, and raised an army—acts that established Islam, from its beginning, as a political religion.
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?"
History would record the answer. Instead of turning and running, the early Muslims made Muhammad's best friend his successor, Islam's first caliph. And within a century, a message first heard in a brooding man's cave endured as the faith of multitudes on three continents.