It’s the holidays for so many this time of year – but alas, not for Muslims. As we follow a lunar calendar, our holidays move about the year. We won’t see Ramadan or Eid Al Adha again for several months.

But just in time, Muslims around the world recently recognized the birthday of our Prophet, Muhammad. One of my initial dilemmas after embracing the religion of Islam was appreciating the love and respect Muslims had for him.  Coming out of Christianity and its reverence for Jesus as son of God, even God Himself, it was important for me not to confuse admiration for reverence. How was I to do that when I didn’t even know him!

Little is said about Muhammad in the Qur’an.  The Qur’an, meaning ‘recitation’ was revealed to Muhammad to be recited. Many of the verses begin with “Say” or “Tell”. Muslims are told repeatedly that Muhammad and other prophets of God were merely men and messengers for God’s guidance and warning.  Part and parcel of the Islamic faith is that God alone is the Creator, unique, of all creation. There are many verses reminding us of the humanness of Muhammad and his fellow prophets.

So how to get to know him?

My husband and I started an Islamic online portal for Muslim children and their families residing in the West. Since my background was music and drama, I created and produced several audio products of stories and songs to help our kids develop understanding and pride in their Muslim identity.  One project my husband suggested was the seerah or story of Muhammad’s life. And so began my study and eventual love for this great man.

Muhammad’s story begins in 6th century Arabia. Born to the most influential but poorer branch of Quraish, the caretakers of the Kaaba and leaders of the Meccan tribe and commerce; he lost both his parents early on.  As a small child he went to live with his grandfather; and at his passing was taken in by a paternal uncle and his family.  Given his situation he was always very empathic to the plight of the orphan and the poor.

His uncle was a merchant who led his caravan across the sands of Arabia. After an early stint as a shepherd, common to many prophets who gained from this post quiet reflection and leadership abilities; he followed his uncle’s footsteps in the merchant trade.  As a young man, Muhammad gained a reputation for his honesty and integrity, earning the title of Al Amin, the Trustworthy. Due to his fair and honest practices, he was often called upon to settle tribal disputes.

Like many other young men of his day, he received no formal education; and is often referred to in the Qur’an as the ‘illiterate prophet’.  This naturally amazed his people when he returned from a retreat in a mountain cave; reciting words of incomparable beauty and import. The story is amazing and bears retelling.

Muhammad was very moved and disheartened by his society; their treatment of the poor, slaves, women, the arrogance of leaders and most of all, idol worship.  He would often seek solace and reflection in a mountain cave above the city.  On one such night as the story goes, he was seated before his fire when he felt the presence of someone, something in the cave.

He felt himself squeezed, and then a voice commanded him to “Read!” Terrified, he replied that he was illiterate, and the feeling subsided. The same occurred twice more until a desperate Muhammad asked “what should I read?”  The first words of the Qur’an were revealed telling him to “Read or recite in the name of God”.  A frantic Muhammad ran down from the mountain and was comforted by his wife who said if God were to choose a man to reveal His message; who else would He choose but Muhammad who was kind and fair to all, honest, Al Amin.

Like most prophets, Muhammad addressed his people with a very unpopular message. Worship God alone. Everyone is equal in the eyes of God; no Arab is better than a non-Arab, no white is better than a black. The leaders fought him bitterly for years but the believers grew steadily in numbers; initially attracting the poor, the slave, the women, the underdog.  Interestingly, those who fought him still trusted him explicitly. They kept business contracts and personal belongings with him for safe keeping. No one ever denounced the man, only his message.

After years of persecution that Muhammad bore with quite tolerance, patience and forgiveness; he finally left Mecca for the city of Medina, where he was invited to settle age-long disputes and lead the community. There he gained further acceptance of the Qur’anic message and many allies from neighboring tribes.  The message of the Qur’an he shared plus his outstanding character, treatment of friends and foe alike, won more and more to stand with him and embrace Islam.

A simple shepherd and merchant became one of the most recognized, celebrated and praised individuals of all time. He held the position of husband, father, leader, orator, commander; and yet worked alongside his people and never asked more of them than he himself could accomplish.

Michael Hart, author of the The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, ranks Muhammad in the Number 1 slot.

“My choice of Muhammad to lead the list of the world’s most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels.”

A person becomes a Muslim simply by professing the shahadah: there is none to be worshipped but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God, necessitating both faith and action. The sunnah (sayings and actions) of Muhammad provides the example for billions of Muslims in their daily lives.  We are told in the Qur’an that Muhammad is an excellent role model; and to take what Allah gave us in the Qur’an and act upon what Muhammad is recorded to have said and done.

He was named Muhammad by his grandfather, an unusual name for his time, meaning ‘praised one’.  Another verse of Qur’an tells us that even the angels praise his name as does the world-wide Muslim community several times daily in the Call to Prayer; and during and at the completion of our five daily prayers.

As with all other prophets, we are asked to salute him at the mention of this name with “May the peace and blessings of God be upon Muhammad”.