Since the Koran is incomprehensible without external references and the Hadiths are a massive jumble of often contradictory tales, the Sira (biographies of Mohammed) must be the best available source of information about Mohammed’s character and career.
The principal biography is that of Ibn Ishaq, which only exists in partial form in other Muslim histories but Alfred Guillaume brought the remnants together and translated them in The Life of Muhammad.
Apart from anything else it provides a damning counterview to the claims we often hear about Mohammed the benevolent lawgiver. For instance, Dr John Andrew Morrow promotes a fantasy version of Mohammed based on his book about the almost certainly fake Covenants of Mohammed. In an interview Morrow said “Traditional, true Islam is a religion of love, peace and understanding. We do not torture, kill, kidnap and, sure as hell, we do not rape. Those who do act against Allah!” However, if we have our Life of Muhammad handy and turn to pages 511 and 515-517 we see Mohammed do all four in the space of a few days. He had Kinana tortured and killed, and kidnapped and raped his wife Safiyah (admittedly after marrying her but consent was clearly not an issue).
Similarly, comparing those pages with the description in Karen Armstrong’s biography Muhammad of “the beautiful seventeen-year-old Safiyah (the daughter of his old enemy Huyay), who had been widowed during the [Khaybar] campaign” tells you everything you need to know about Armstrong’s approach to her subject.
If you have only an hour to spare here is an abridged version. If you have only ten minutes to spare here are edited highlights. But nothing gives the full flavour of the brutal times and Mohammed’s brutal actions like the full Life of Muhammed.
The book’s index gives only the briefest indication of particular events so here is an expanded guide to the contents which I hope may be helpful. The page number of the text is given plus the electronic page number (eg 99/432) for speed of locating sections:
p.82 (65/432) Khadija
Mohammed marries Khadija, a wealthy merchant woman.
p.106 (77/432) Gabriel
Archangel Gabriel appears to Mohammed in a dream. Mohammed thinks he has become an ecstatic poet or possessed, and decides to throw himself off the mountain but Gabriel stops him, telling him he is Allah’s apostle. Khadija convinces him that he is not possessed and hopes he will become a prophet.
p.165 (106/432) The Context of Sura 109
A party of the Quraysh (Mohammed’s tribe in Mecca) propose merging his monotheistic religion with their polytheistic one. Mohammed rejects the proposal saying “I do not worship what you worship, and you do not worship what I worship…you have your religion and I have mine”.
This statement is often deceptively presented as an example of Mohammed’s religious tolerance rather than simply a rejection of syncretism. In fact later scholars regarded the crucial verse 6 as being abrogated by 9:5 the “Verse of the Sword”.
The Satanic Verses affair
Mohammed agrees to venerate three goddesses of the Quraysh, then realising he has gone back on his strict monotheism, receives a revelation from Gabriel explaining that the message did not come from him but Satan who tricked Mohammed.
p.181 (114/432) The Night Journey and the Ascent to Heaven
Mohammed flies to Jerusalem on a donkey and climbs a ladder to heaven where he meets the prophets and haggles with Allah over the number of daily prayers required. He is given a glimpse into hell where he sees women hanging by their breasts because they had “fathered bastards on their husbands”.
p.198 (123/432) The First Pledge at Aqaba (near Mecca)
Mohammed forms a peaceful alliance (ie the pledge of women) with members of the Aus and Khazraj tribes of Medina. They become known as the Ansar (ie helpers).
p.201 (124/432) The Second Pledge at Aqaba
Mohammed and the Aus and Khazraj enter into a military alliance. Mohammed says “I will war against them that war against you and be at peace with those at peace with you”.
One tribesman says “Oh men of Khazraj, do you realize to what you are committing yourselves in pledging your support to this man? It is to war against all and sundry”. They accept Mohammed on these conditions but ask what they will get in return. Mohammed promises them paradise.
p.212 (130/432) The Order to Fight
Allah gives Mohammed permission to engage in retaliatory warfare against his enemies of the Quraysh in Mecca.
p.221 (133/432) The Hijra
The Meccans plan to kill Mohammed but he escapes to Medina, followed by his followers in Mecca (the muhajirun).
p.231 (138/432) The Charter of Medina
Mohammed draws up an agreement between the various tribal and religious groups in Medina.
p.250 (148/432) The Jews do not accept Mohammed’s prophethood
In a commentary on Sura 2 Allah is quoted as telling the Jews “Do not conceal the knowledge which you have about My apostle”.
The claim that Jews know that Mohammed was prophesied in the Torah but they deny it is a theme which runs through the book, as detailed HERE.
Mohammed reminds Jews of the time when Allah transformed some of them into apes for their sins.
p.256 (151/432) Letter to the Jews of Khaybar
Mohammed writes to the Jews of Khaybar calling them to Islam.
‘God says to you O scripture folk, and you will find it in your scripture “Muhammad is the apostle of God”…’
‘Do you find in what He has sent down to you that you should believe in Muhammed? If you do not find that in your scripture then there is no compulsion on you, “The right path has become plainly distinguished from error” so I call you to God and his prophet’.
Therefore the famous “no compulsion in religion” statement in Koran 2:256 is only conditional here, and since that condition has not been met compulsion is not proscribed.
p.267 (156/432) Mohammed has adulterers stoned
Mohammed revives the lapsed injunction in the Torah to stone adulterers. “And when the Jew felt the first stone he crouched over the woman to protect her from the stones until both of them were killed”.
p.286 (168/432) The first caravan raid
Mohammed sends his men to attack a Meccan caravan, which they do but before the Sacred Month has elapsed. Everyone is unhappy but Allah obliges with a helpful revelation. Mohammed establishes the rule for dividing booty, four fifths for those who Allah allowed to take it and one fifth for Allah and his Apostle.
p.289 (169/432) The Battle of Badr
Mohammed leads an expedition to attack a Meccan caravan, leading to a decisive victory for the Muslims, partly due to the assistance of an army of of angels (see also Koran 3:123-4).
p.363 (206/432) The Banu Qaynuqa
Mohammed besieges the Qaynuqa, one of three Jewish tribes of Medina, until they surrender unconditionally. The leader of the Khazraj tribe prevails on Mohammed to spare them and Mohammed gives them to him. Other sources say that the Qaynuqa were then expelled from the region.
p.364 (207/432) The killing of Ka’b b al-Ashraf
Mohammed orders the assassination of Ka’b b al-Ashraf for composing insulting verses about him. Members of the Aus tribe carry it out.
p.369 (209/432) The killing of Ibn Sunayna
Mohammed orders “Kill any Jew that falls into your power”. Muhayyisa kills Ibn Sunayna and Muhayyisa’s brother Huwayyisa upbraids him for killing someone who had benefited him so much. Muhayyisa replies that if ordered by Mohammed he would have killed Huwayyisa who is so impressed that he converts.
p.370 (210/432) The Battle of Uhud
An inconclusive victory for the Meccans.
p.437 (243/432) The Banu Nadir
Mohammed defeats the Nadir, the second Jewish tribe of Medina, confiscates their property and expels them from the region.
p.450 (250/432) The Battle of the Ditch (or Trench)
Mohammed orders a ditch to be dug as a defence against an alliance of Jews and Quraysh. Mohammed strikes a rock with a pick, producing three sparks. He explains “the first means that Allah has opened up to me the Yaman; the second Syria and the west; and the third the east”. The alliance eventually withdraws after the siege fails.
p.461 (255/432) The Banu Qurayza
Mohammed lays siege to the Qurayza, the third Jewish tribe of Medina, addressing them thus “You brothers of monkeys, has God disgraced you and brought His vengeance upon you?”
They surrender after 25 nights. Mohammed has 600-900 men beheaded and the women and children sold into slavery, except Rayhana who he selects for himself.
p.482 (266/432) The killing of Sallam Ibn Abu’l-Hayquq
The Khazraj, jealous that the Aus had killed Ka’b b al-Ashraf, ask permission to assassinate Sallam Ibn Abu’l-Hayquq, an opponent of Mohammed in Khaybar. Mohammed grants permission and they carry out the murder.
p.504 (277/432) The Treaty of Hudaybiya
Mohammed agrees a 10 year truce with the Meccans.
p.510 (280/432) The Expedition to Khaybar
Mohammed marches against Khaybar, conquering forts and taking captives. He selects Safiya, the wife of Kinana b. al-Rabi for himself.
Mohammed has Kinana tortured with fire in order to find out where the Jews’ treasure is hidden then has him beheaded. A captured woman attempts to poison Mohammed but does not succeed.
p.552 (301/432) The Occupation of Mecca
Mohammed enters Mecca with no resistance and destroys 360 idols around the Ka’ba.
p.566 (308/432) The Battle of Hunayn
Mohammed wins a decisive battle against the Hawazin tribe.
p.588 (319/432) Poetry
Before the capture of Al-Ta’if, Ka’b b. Malik sums up the ethos of the Religion of War in these lines:
“Till you turn to Islam, humbly seeking refuge,
We will fight not caring whom we meet…
They came at us thinking they had no equal
And we cut off their noses and ears
With our fine polished Indian swords
Driving them violently before us
To the command of God and Islam…
And he who cannot protect himself must suffer disgrace”
p.602 (326/432) The Raid on Tabuk
Mohammed marches to Tabuk in NW Arabia to meet a rumoured Byzantine invasion force but fails to find it.
p.609 (329/432) A rival mosque
Mohammed orders an independently set up mosque to be burned, while people are worshipping in it
p.618 (334/432) The Verse of the Sword
Mohammed revokes treaties held with polytheist tribes and pronounces Koran 9:5, giving permission to attack unbelievers solely for religious reasons…“And when the sacred months are passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them, and seize them and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush…”
p.651 (350/432) The Final Sermon
Mohammed gives what has become known as the Final Sermon. If women defile men’s beds or act with open unseemliness…“God allows you to put them in separate rooms and beat them, though not with severity…Lay injunctions on women kindly for they are prisoners with you, having no control of their persons”.
p.652 (351/432) Out of Arabia
Mohammed orders an expedition to Syria and Palestine, the first outside Arabia.
p.652 (351/432) Neighbouring rulers called to Islam
Messengers are sent to neighbouring kings calling on them to accept Islam.
To Badhan, governor of Yaman, Mohammed makes the offer “If you submit I will give you what you already hold and appoint you king over your people in Yaman.”
p.659 (354/432) A Summary of Mohammed’s battles
Mohammed took part in 27 raids and fought in 9 of them.
p.664 (357/432) The killing of Umm Qirfa
Zayd, Mohammed’s adopted son, raids the Banu Fazara and has their leader, an old woman called Umm Qirfa, killed “cruelly by putting a rope to her two legs and to two camels and driving them until they rent her in two”.
p.669 (359/432) Abu Bakr thinks there is compulsion in religion
Abu Bakr, later to become the first caliph, tells a convert “God sent Muhammed with this religion and he strove for it until men accepted it voluntarily or by force”.
p.672 (361/432) “Kill those who disbelieve in God”
At the raid on Dumatu’l-Jandal Mohammed gives ‘Abdu’l-Rahman b. ‘Auf the standard and tells him “Fight everyone in the way of God and kill those who disbelieve in God”.
p.675 (362/432) The killing of Asma d. Marwan
Mohammed orders the killing of mother of five, Asma d. Marwan of the Banu Khatma, for writing an insulting verse about him. Umayr carries it out. Mohammed says “You have helped God and his Apostle”. When Umayr asks if he will have to suffer any evil consequences, Mohammed replies “Two goats won’t butt their heads about her”.
“The day after Bint Marwan was killed the men of Banu Khatma became Muslims because they saw the power of Islam”.
p.677 (363/432) Revenge for the Killing of Yasar
Mohammed allows some sick tribesmen to drink the milk and urine of his camels but they kill the shepherd Yasar and drive off the camels. They are captured and Mohammed orders their hands and feet to be cut off and their eyes to be gouged out.
p.682 (365/432) The Death of Mohammed
Mohammed dies, nursed by A’isha. Umar, later to become the second caliph, declares Mohammed is not dead but has just gone to spend time with Allah and threatens to cut off the hands and feet of those who claim otherwise.
p.687 (368/432) Abu Bakr makes his position clear
Abu Bakr is chosen as Mohammed’s successor, the first caliph. He tells the believers “If a people refrain from fighting in the way of God, God will smite them with disgrace”
p.689 (369/432) Last words
It is reported that Mohammed’s last words were “Let not two religions be left in the Arabian Peninsula”.
It is later reported that A’isha used to say “When the apostle died the Arabs apostatized and Christianity and Judaism raised their heads and disaffection appeared. The Muslims became as sheep exposed to rain on a winter’s night through the loss of their prophet until God united them under Abu Bakr”.
This refers to the Brutal Ridda or Apostasy wars conducted by Abu Bakr against reneging tribes. The majority of the tribes were willing to regard Mohammed as their prophet but Abu Bakr insisted on them also paying the zakat tax.