The earliest surviving accounts of Muhammad's life were written some 200 years after his death; therefore, it is not clear how accurate those are. It seems that during those 200 years, the Arab tribes were too busy invading, raping and looting cities and countries, to write about their prophet!
More recent archeological evidence indicates that Muhammad was more likely a heretic Christian Arab born near Jerusalem. This is also corroborated by Koran, as it talks about Muhammad's house being close to the reputed salt pillar of prophet Lot's wife. It also agrees with the fact that for the first 90 years, early Muslims were praying towards Jerusalem, not Mecca. Furthermore, Muhammad preached a messianic vision that the end-time was near, leading to the resurrection of Jesus, who would then rule the Earth!
However, this account is based on the earliest Arabic sources of the ninth century CE, not the recent controversial finds.
As it was customary among the wealthy Arabs of Mecca, the new born Muhammad was given to a Bedouin nanny to breast-feed, in her tribe’s campground outside the town. Ali Dashti attributes that separation to the fact that Mecca was so filthy and decease-ridden at the time that most kids would have died, if they were kept there at an early age. So the prophet spent his first years among the Bedouin tribes and in the wild and fresh air of the desert.
Muhammad was very young when his father passed away and his custody (based on Semitic traditions) went to his grandfather, and upon his death, to his uncle. In the brutish city of Mecca, the orphaned Muhammad was treated roughly by the other kids who were better off, and was constantly reminded of his poverty and loneliness. Nevertheless, he grew up to be a hardworking, honest and thoughtful young man, very employable in the service of the Mecca traders.
Back then, the Roman trade with Far East (mostly India) had been disrupted by the century old Persian-Roman wars. Therefore, some of that trade was rechanneled through Yemen, Mecca and Syria. It was a lucrative operation for the Arab warlords who would organize and protect the safe passage of the caravans to the East Roman Empire (Byzantine).
Muhammad worked for nearly a decade in the Roman trade route and became very familiar with both the Christian and the Jewish traditions of the Near East. As an intelligent young man, he absorbed most of the biblical stories, which placed his life in a much more appealing prospective. He found solace in the hardship stories of Job and Moses, but perhaps was most influenced by Abraham, a Semitic prophet who recanted his own town and traditions, to build a new Utopia and create a new way of life.
At the age of 40, after 15 years of marriage to a wealthy business woman, Muhammad found some spare time to contemplate his past and future, his beliefs and doubts. Like some other contemporary mystics of Mecca, he started frequenting the caves outside town, fasting and praying to god for guidance. He finally claimed that an angle of god had spoken to him, and had read him a book (Koran) which would put the affairs of all mankind, including the Arabs, Jews, Persians and Christians, in order!
That message was first tried on his wife and close relatives, with partial success. A handful of them accepted that the honest Muhammad was not lying, and that the incredible verses he was reciting were miraculous and could not be the work of a semi-literate man. Soon, the prophet said that god had asked him to openly summon all the people of Mecca to the new faith. But the tough and cynical men of Mecca laughed at Muhammad’s call to brotherhood, monotheism and observance of what seemed like the Jewish rituals. Even the Jewish rabbis criticized his inadequate knowledge of the biblical traditions and mistakes in reciting their stories as part of a new testament.
The laughter and the criticism made Muhammad upset and angry enough, to start confronting the prominent townspeople with daily repudiation of their barbaric manners. In response, the Mecca nobility boycotted his business, openly disowned him and even encouraged the street kids to ridicule and stone him. Poor and desperate, the prophet then concentrated his message towards the disadvantaged of Mecca, the deprived and the slaves. He not only promised them freedom and hope, but also the Abraham god’s pledge that ‘the meek would inherit the earth’!
When the Mecca upper class was confronted with the spectre of a slave uprising, they killed some of the rebellious poor, confiscated Muslims’ properties and banished Muhammad and his followers to the outskirts of the city. Pained and worried that the fickle flame of his calling would die in such hardship, Muhammad sent messengers far and wide. The people of Yathrib (later called the Medina or city of prophet) gave him refuge, and became his base to fight the arrogant aristocracy of Mecca.
From his base in Medina, Muhammad encouraged and organized his followers to revenge on the Meccans, who had earlier confiscated their belongings. This started years of looting the Mecca caravans that had to pass near Medina, on route to Syria and back. In reply, the Mecca warlords organized much bigger trade missions that could be guarded more effectively. That in turn encouraged the now militaristically organized Muslims to engage in open combat with the Meccans who were accompanied by large sums of money and goods.
The rich and powerful of Mecca lost their first famed battle (Badr) to the Muslims, because they had grossly underestimated the ragtag party of Muhammad. The true strength of Muhammad’s faith was the open-door policy and merit-based hierarchy. If you wanted in, well, you were in, without any tribal or racial barriers. And if you were any good, you could get command, without prejudice and bias. In addition, most of the followers ‘had nothing to lose but their chains’ (as Karl Marx rediscovered centuries later), and had a lot to gain by attacking and defeating the pampered, pompous and disorganized aristocracy.
His first relatively easy victories made Muhammad both jubilant and gracious. He would be forgiving even towards his tormenters (the Mecca rich) and his ridiculers (the Jewish tribes). However, soon the opposition woke up under the leadership of Muhammad’s own grandfather tribe (Ghoraish), and organized successful campaigns (like Uhud) against the Muslims. Many of Muhammad’s family and friends were killed, and he was himself injured.
But neither the bloody defeat of Uhud, nor the subsequent siege of Medina (war of the trench) could break the back of Muhammad’s uprising. In the face of diminished loots and proceeds of war, the prophet promised eternal heaven to his battle-wary followers, where ‘streams of milk and honey’ would quench their thirst and ‘flocks of young virgins’ would satisfy their desires. At a more practical level, Mohammad resorted to such Persian-Roman war veterans like Salomon the Farsi, who taught the latest war techniques to Muslims. The prophet also started a campaign of intimidation against all the Ghoraish allies, including the neighbouring Jewish tribes, starting with the threat of force and concluding with their massacre and total annihilation.
Against the undefeated rich and powerful of Mecca, Muhammad the war-strategist concluded a balanced peace treaty, which among other things, allowed him and his followers to visit Mecca and its famed cubic temple once a year, during the pilgrimage. The cubic temple of Mecca (Kaaba) was a traditional holy site for the idolater Arabs, where each tribe used to keep its god’s symbol (idol) for protection, and they would visit it once a year. The annual pilgrimage was supposed to be a time of peace, and the tribesmen were only allowed to enter Mecca without their weapons.
Initially, Muhammad had overlooked the holiness of Mecca and Kaaba for the Arab, in favour of the Jewish holy town of Jerusalem. However, in face of bitter struggles with the neighbouring Jewish tribes, and in order to gain favours with the Arab tribes who worshiped Kaaba, Muhammad changed the Muslim point of prayer! Then next year, the Muslims returned to Mecca for pilgrimage and show-of-force, chanting: ‘no god but Allah’. However, they did not otherwise force the issue on the Meccans. Allah was one of the chief existing gods in Kaaba, so the message started to sink in.
The simple unifying message of ‘no god but Allah’ appealed to the disjointed Arab tribes who could finally see a chance for unity and nationhood. The most powerful of them appealed to Muhammad to also accept the legitimacy and holiness of four highly regarded idols in the Kaaba, as a precondition for them to join the Muslims. Upon reflection, Muhammad accepted and uttered verses which praised the other four idols of Kaaba as holy and legitimate. However, the next day, he changed heart and recanted that acceptance as the Satanic Verses, which apparently the devil had whispered into his ears!
Next year, during the pilgrimage to Mecca, Muhammad summoned 10,000 armed Muslims to converge on the city. He reneged on the peace treaty and gave two options to the Meccans: Islam (submission) or war! However, when the rich and powerful of Mecca submitted, Muhammad was again gracious and allowed them full amnesty, and even notable positions in his armed forces and governmental organization. There and then, the prophet’s journey from revolutionary to sovereign was complete!
Reading Muhammad’s life, one can find so many similarities between him and the other brutal revolutionaries, who claimed to change the world, but world changed them. Muhammad has many similarities with other revolutionaries everywhere, even down to our own time (Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin, Mao and Khomeini).
Recent criticism of Muhammad's claims to be the final prophet of the "kindest" God, are about his immorality, harsh treatment of enemies, marriages to underage girls and his psychological condition. Muhammad has been accused of sadism and mercilessness, demonstrated during the invasion of many Jewish tribes in Medina. He is known for sexual relationships with slaves (basically rape of captives) and marriage to the underage Aisha, when she was six years old with consummation when she was only nine.