Everyone knows his name. He was, and still is, one of the most influential figures of all time, yet most of us have little real sense of the man himself. A favorite question of those asking about my new book, "The First Muslim," is thus what surprised me most in my research. Or rather, what might surprise them. Here's a shortlist:
1. He was born an orphan.
His father died without knowing he had a son, and Muhammad was farmed out to Beduin foster parents for the first five years of his life, returning to his mother in Mecca for only a year until she also died. The 6-year-old was left on the margins -- an outsider within his own society. He was put to work as a camel boy on the trade caravans to Damascus, and though he eventually made his way up to become a business agent, could never take his place in the world for granted.
2. He married up -- and for love.
The widowed Khadija was 40, he was 25, and since she was his employer, it was she who proposed to him. Some scholars have assumed that the "wealthy widow" syndrome was at work here, but early accounts indicate a marriage of mutual love and respect -- a monogamous one that lasted 24 years until her death. He'd mourn her until his own death 13 years later.
His nine late-life marriages were mainly means of diplomatic alliance and of securing his base, as was customary for any leader of the time. It's striking that though he'd had five children with Khadija (four daughters, and a son who died in infancy), he'd have none with any of the later wives.
3. His first reaction to becoming a prophet? Doubt and despair.
He was terrified by the first Quranic revelation, which happened on a mountain just outside Mecca in the year 610, when he was 40. In his own reported words, the pain was so intense that he thought he was dying. Convinced that he was either delusional or possessed, since it seemed impossible that someone like him could be a prophet, his first impulse when he found himself still alive was to try to finish the job himself and leap off the mountain to his death.
4. He led an early form of Occupy Wall Street.
His message constituted a radical protest against the corruption and arrogance of the Meccan elite. As both a pilgrimage and trading hub, the city had combined piety and profit to become a kind of seventh-century bull market. Muhammad's ongoing revelations demanded social and economic justice, and this provoked intense opposition from the city's rulers (as did his outrage at the preference for sons over daughters and the ensuing practice of female infanticide). The intent was reform, but those in power saw it as a subversive call for revolution.
5. He was a pacifist -- at first.
For 12 years, he took a proto-Gandhian stance of passive resistance to organized harassment of him and his small group of followers in Mecca -- "these nobodies" as his opponents called them. The Quranic revelations constantly urged him to "reply to foolish mockery with words of peace," to "pay no attention," and to "turn your face away" -- words one sometimes wishes more of his followers heeded today. When the assaults became physical as well as verbal, he refused to fight back or to allow his followers to do so. In the year 622, the attacks culminated in a concerted attempt on his life, forcing him into exile in Medina, 200 miles to the north.
His eventual decision to take up arms in exile was highly ambivalent - the result of political pressure as he assumed political as well as spiritual leadership. In fact the first of the three battles he'd lead against Mecca began as much by miscalculation as by intent. Yet even after his home city accepted his leadership in a negotiated surrender and welcomed him back -- the outsider transformed within eight years into the ultimate insider -- he'd never return to live there, but would stay in Medina.
6. He knew how to say he was wrong.
He acknowledged his own fallibility, most notably in the now infamous case of "the Satanic verses," when he tried to mend the rift between himself and his opponents by acknowledging their totem gods as intercessors with the one supreme god. When he realized that he'd been tempted into betraying his principles and that there could be "no partners with God," he had the courage and integrity to publicly declare his mistake.
7. His tragic failure came at the end.
He died without designating a successor. In the absence of a son, many thought it crucial that he make his wishes unequivocally clear, but though his final illness lasted 10 days (the duration and symptoms seem to indicate bacterial meningitis), he never did so. Ironically, the prophet of unity -- one god, one people -- thus paved the way for the divisiveness between Sunni and Shiite that persists today.
Click through the slideshow for a history of Islamic law:
Muhammad experiences a vision in a cave, which he and his followers will attribute to divine intervention. The communications from God, which continue for two more decades, are thought to delineate a path toward salvation -- "the sharia." (Photo: A Muslim pilgrim prays at the Hiraa cave on Noor mountain late on Nov. 13, 2010 as some 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims descend on the holy city of Mecca for the annual hajj or pilgrimage. According to tradition, Islam's Prophet Mohammed received his first message to preach Islam while praying in the cave.)
Muhammad's death sets off a succession crisis. The dispute will eventually widen into a full-blown schism between groups known as Sunnis and Shiites. (Photo: A Muslim woman prays in the courtyard of the Prophet Muhammad Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Medina on Nov. 13, 2009. Muhammad is buried in Medina's landmark mosque, which is Islam's second holiest shrine after Mecca.)
The revelations voiced by Muhammad are systematically written down for the first time. Several supposedly aberrant versions of the Quran are then incinerated on the orders of Caliph Uthman. (Photo: A Pakistani girl reads verses from the Quran while attending her daily madrassa, or Islamic school, set up in a local mosque on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, April 11, 2012.)
Revolutionaries overthrow the dynasty that has come to control the Muslim world, in the hope of restoring perfect Islamic justice on earth. Another dynasty assumes power instead. The caliphate's center of gravity shifts from Damascus to a purpose-built capital known as 'the City of Peace' - or Baghdad. (Photo: Iraqi worshippers perform their Friday prayers in a mosque in Baghdad's Shiite suburb of Sadr City on May 4, 2012.)
Caliphs in search of political legitimacy encourage scholars based around Medina and Baghdad to develop legal principles to supplement the Quran's very limited number of rules. The scholars oblige, drawing on sources ranging from Arab tradition and Persian custom to Greek philosophy. (Photo: An Indonesian Muslim student reads from an academic religious book in an Islamic course at Al-Azhar mosque in the old city of Cairo on Dec. 4, 2011. Al-Azhar mosque, which was developed into one of the oldest Islamic universities, pays special attention to the Quranic sciences and traditions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and all the modern fields of science.)
Iraqi scholars attempt for the first time to establish and document precisely which oral traditions about Muhammad (<em>hadiths</em>) are authentic. Jurists use the resulting compilations to re-interpret the sharia. (Photo: Tilings of a hadith on a wall in Nishapur, Iran.)
Five distinct bodies of legal thought become dominant, and alternative ways of understanding the sharia are sidelined. (Photo: A masked and hooded person canes Indonesian food seller Murni Amris for violating Islamic sharia law outside a mosque in Jantho, Aceh province, on Oct. 1, 2010. Two women were caned in Indonesia's staunchly Muslim Aceh province for selling food during the fasting hour of Ramadan, an official said.)
An army led by Genghis Khan invades the Muslim world through what is now northern Pakistan, and one of his grandsons renews the onslaught four decades later. Baghdad falls into Mongol hands, and the city's last caliph is rolled into a carpet and trampled to death. Despair and chaos ensue.
In response to the ongoing Mongol threat, new ideas about the sharia proliferate. Some are defensive and others are aggressive, but most concern themselves more with the mystical search for God than with questions of compulsion and force. (Photo: Mongol army.)
The Ottomans capture Constantinople. Successive sultans assert control over their expanding empire by trying to summarize God's law in statutory form - an innovation that early Muslims would have considered heretical. (Photo: Mehmed II entering Constantinople.)
The British suppress a major rebellion against their rule over India, intensifying the imperialist ambitions of several European powers. In response, Muslims increasingly associate the sharia with self-determination, as national and religious identities fuse. (Photo: Captain William Hodson captured the King of Delhi during the "Indian Mutiny" or First war of Indian Independence.)
A clan known as the Saudis seize control of the Arabian peninsula after a brutal civil war. Its leaders allow religious scholars to enforce a particularly harsh brand of Islamic law. (Photo: Saudi women stand outside a gift shop on Feb. 14, 2012 in the capital Riyadh, where open celebration of Valentine's Day is officially banned along with the desert kingdom's strict Islamic laws.)
Colonel Gaddafi becomes the first ruler since Ottoman times to enact statutes authorizing the punishment of Islamic crimes. A coup in Pakistan, a revolution in Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan kick off an era of radicalization that will mean he is not the last. (Photo: President Gamal Abdal Nasser of Egypt (right) with the Leader of the Libyan Revolution, Muammar al-Gaddafi in 1969.)
Extremists assassinate Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. They object to his willingness to make peace with Israel, and justify the killing by citing 14th century legal opinions about the Mongol invasions. (Photo: An undated picture shows late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (L) waving to a crowd as Vice-President Hosni Mubarak (R) laughs beside him standing in a convertible vehicle. Mubarak came to office as Egypts fourth president after late President Anwar Sadat was slained by a group of military Islamist fundamentalists with allegiance to the Al-Jihad during a military parade Oct. 6, 1981.)
A year on from an Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Shiite fighters kill hundreds of foreign soldiers with the first ever suicide bomb. Some scholars formulate new legal theories to validate the tactic retrospectively. (Photo: Hezbollah fighters parade during a ceremony organized by the militant Shiite Muslim group on the occasion of Martyr's Day in the southern suburbs of Beirut Nov. 11, 2009.)
Ayatollah Khomeini demands that "The Satanic Verses" author Salman Rushdie be killed for blasphemy -- a sin for which the Quran itself mandates no penalty. (Photo: A veiled Iranian woman walks past a mural depicting Iranian late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, painted on the wall of the former US Embassy, in Tehran, Iran, where Iranian militant students seized in November 1979.)
In the aftermath of 9/11, hardliners continue to insist that Islamic jurisprudence is timeless. History continues to prove them wrong. (Photo: In this Friday, May 25, 2012 photo, Muslim hardliners of Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) hold banners during a protest against Lady Gaga in Jakarta, Indonesia. As the U.S. pop star canceled her sold out concert in Jakarta over security concerns after Muslim hardliners threatened to use violence against her, many started to question the extremists' double standard towards the raunchy <em>dangdut</em> shows performed almost every night by young Indonesian women who turn up everywhere from smokey bars and ritzy nightclubs to weddings and even circumcisions. Dangdut is the most popular music among lower class people in Indonesia.)