The most outstanding characteristic of the life of the Prophet is the amazing success which he achieved. The transformation wrought within the short space of less than a quarter of a century is in fact unparalleled in the history of the world. There is not a single reformer who brought about such an entire change in the lives of a whole nation inhabiting such a vast country. None, in fact, found his people at such a depth of degradation as the Prophet found the Arabs, and no one raised them materially, morally and spiritually to the height to which he raised them. So deep-rooted was their idolatry, so powerful the bonds of their superstitions and their usages that the propagandic efforts of the Jews and the Christians, carried on for hundreds of years one after the other, with the material power of the kingdoms at their back, could not bring about the least change in their condition. The indigenous Arab movement of the Hanifs proved an even greater failure. All these attempts at form left the Arabs as a nation as ignorant of the principles of religion and morality as they ever were.
Twenty-three years work of the Prophet, however, quite metamorphosed them. Worship of idols and of all objects other than God, whether in heaven or on earth, was now considered to be a disgrace to humanity. No trace of an idol was left throughout the whole of Arabia. The whole nation awakened to a sense of the true dignity of manhood and realized the folly of falling prostrate before things which man was made to rule and before powers which he was required to conquer. Superstition gave place to a rational religion. The Arab was not only cleansed of deep-rooted vice and bare-faced immorality; he was further inspired with a burning desire for the best and noblest deeds in the service of, no country and nation, but, what is far higher than that, humanity. Old customs which involved injustice to the weak and the oppressed were all swept away, as if by a magician's wand, and just and reasonable laws took their place. Drunkenness, to which Arabia was addicted from time immemorial, disappeared so entirely that the very goblets and vessels which were used for drinking and keeping wine could no more be found. Gambling was quite unknown, and the loose relations of the sexes gave place to the highest regard for chastity. The Arab who prided himself on ignorance became the lover of knowledge, drinking deep at every fountain of learning to which he could get access. And greatest of all, from an Arabia, the various elements of which were so constantly at war with each other that the whole country was about to perish, was indeed on:
as the Holy Quran so tersely puts it - from these jarring and warring elements, the Prophet welded together a nation, a united nation full of life and vigour, before whose onward march the greatest kingdoms of the world crumbled as if they were but toys before the reality of the new faith. No man ever; breathed such a new life on such a wide scale a life affecting all branches of human activity; a transformation of the individual, of the family, of the society, of the nation, of the country, an awakening, material as well as moral, intellectual as well as spiritual. Here are a few testimonies from non-Muslim writers:
During the youth of Muhammad, the aspect of the Peninsula was strongly conservative; perhaps never at any previous time was reform more hopeless. ... Ibid
Causes are sometime conjured up to account for results produced by an agent apparently inadequate to correct them. Muhammad arose, and forthwith the Arabs were aroused to a new and spiritual faith; hence the conclusion that Arabia was fermenting for the change, and prepared to adopt it. To us calmly reviewing the past, pre-Islamite history belies the assumption.... Ibid
From time beyond memory Mecca and the whole Peninsula had been steeped in spiritual torpor. The slight and transient influences of Judaism, Christianity, or philosophical enquiry upon the Arab mind had been but as the ruffling here and there of the surface of a quiet lake; all remained still and motionless below. The people were sunk in superstition, cruelty and vice ... Their religion was a gross idolitry; and their faith, the dark superstitious dread of unseen things ... Thirteen years before the Hijra, Mecca lay lifeless in this debased state. What a change had these thirteen years now produced ... Jewish truth had long sounded in the ears of the men of Medina; but it was not until they heard the spirit-stirring strains of the Arabian Prophet that they too awoke from their slumber, and sprang suddenly into a new and earnest life. ... Sir Walter Muir
And yet we may truly say that no history can boast events that strike the imagination in a more lively manner or can be more surprising in themsdves, than those we meet with in the life of the first Mussalmans; whether we consider the Great Chief, or his ministers, the most illustrious of men; or whether we take an account of the manners of the several countries he conquered; or observe the courage, virtue and sentiments that equilly prevailed among his generals and soldiers. ... Life of Muhammad, by Count of Boulainvilliers.
A more disunited people it would be hard to find, till, suddenly, the miracle took place. A man arose who, by his personality and by his claim to direct Divine guidance, actually brought about the impossible, namely, the union of all these warring factions. ... Ins and Outs of Mespot
Never has a people been led more rapidly to civilization, such as it was, than were the Arabs through Islam. ... New Researches, by Hirschfeld
Such then, very briefly, was the condition of the Arabs, social and religious, when, to use an expression of Voltaire, . . . ' the turn of Arabia came '; when the hour had already struck for the most complete, the most sudden and the most extraordinary revolution that had ever come over any nation upon earth. ... Bosworth Smith
Of all the religious personalities of the world, Muhammad was the most successful. ... Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition.
Whatever may be the views on polygamy of the modern world, there is not the least doubt that plurality of wives is met with in the lives of the great religious personages who by a consensus of opinion led lives of transcendent purity. Abraham, who is held in reverence by more than half the world up to this day, had more wives than one. Similar was the case with Jacob, Moses and David among the Israelites, and with some of the famous revered sages of the Hindus. Yet it is true that these grat sages were not led to a polygamous life by sensual desires. Purity in all respects is the outstanding characteristic of their lives, and this fact alone is sufficient to condemn the attempt to defame them on the basis of their resorting to polygamy. What was their object in doing so, it is difficult to say at the present day, as their histories are generally enveloped in darkness, but as the life of the Prophet can be read in the full light of history, we will take his case in detail.
The life of the Prophet may be divided into four periods so far as his domestic life is concerned. Up to twenty-five he led a celibate life; from twenty-five to fifty-four he lieved in a married state with one wife; from fifty-four to sixty he contracted several marriages; and lastly, from sixty till his death he did not contract any new marriage. The most important period to determine whether the Prophet was a slave to his passions is the period of celibacy. If he had not been a complete master of his passions, he could not have led an exceptionally chaste and pure life, which won him the title of al-Amin, to the age of twenty-five in a hot country like Arabia where development must necessarily take place early and passions are generally stronger. His worst enemies could not point to a single blot on his character when challenged later. According to Muir, all authorities agree "in ascribing to the youth of Muhammad a modesty of deportment and purity of manners rare among the people of Mecca."
Now, youth is the time when passions run riot, and the man who is able to control his passions in youth, and that in celibacy, cannot, possibly, be conceived as falling a prey to lust in his old age. Thus the first period of his life, his celibacy up to twenty-five years of age, is conclusive proof that the could never fall a prey to his passions. It should be noted in this connection that in Arab society at the time there was no moral sanction against an immoral life, so that it cannot be said that he was kept back from an evil course by the moral force of society. Profligacy, on the other hand, was the order of the day; and it was among people who prided themselves on loose sexual relations that the Prophet led a life of transcendent purity, and therefore all the more credit is due to his purity of character.
Take now the next period, the period of a monogamous married life. When twenty-five years of age, Muhammad married a widow, Khadija, fifteen years his senior, and led a life of the utmost devotion with her till she died, when he was fifty years of age. Polygamy was the rule in Arabia at the time; and the wife had not cause of complaint, nor did she ever grumble, if the husband brought in a second or thired wife. The Prophet belonged to the nobletst family of the Quaraish and his marriage with Khadija had enriched him; and if he had chosen to marry another wife, it whould have been quite easy for him. But he led a monogamous life of the utmost devotion to his wife during all that time. When Khadija died, he married a very elderly lady, Sauda, whose only recommendation for the honour was that she was the widow of a faithful companion of his who had to flee to Abyssinia from the persecution of the Quraish. The main part of his life, from twenty-five to fifty-four, was thus an example for his followers that monogamy was the rule in married life.
Now comes the third period. Of all his wives A'isha was the only one whom he married as a virgin. Her father, Abu Bakr, the closest frined of the Prophet had offered her to him when he suffered the great vereavement of losing both his wife and his uncle Abu Talib. The girl was one possessing exceptional qualities, and both Abu Bakr and the Prophet saw in her the great woman of the future who was best suited to perform the duties of the wife of a teacher who was to be a perfect exemplar for mankind. So the Prophet accepted her; but apparently she had not yet reached the age of puberty, and her marriage was consummated towards the close of the second year of the Flight.
In the second year of the Flight began the series of battles with the Quraish and the other Arab tribes, which appreciably reduced the number of males, the bread-winners of the family. These battles continued up to the eighth year of the Flight, and it was during this time that the Prophet contracted all the marriages which appear objectionable to the modern mind, but which neither friend nor foe looked upon with disapprobation at the time. A Christian writer says:
Let us look the facts straight in the face. The Prophet had now in his house a young and beautiful wife in 'A'ish. None of the other wives whom he married later compared with her either in youth or beauty. Surely then it was not attraction for beauty that led to these marraiges. We have already seen that from his youth till his old age the Prophet remained a complete master of his passions. The man who could live in celebacy up to twenty-five and still have the reputation of a spotless character, who up to fifty-four lived with a single wife and this notwithstanding the fact that polygamy was more the rule than the exception at the time and that a polygamous connection was not in the least objectionable- such a man could not be said to have changed all of a sudden after fifty-five when old age generally soothes the passions even of those who cannot control their passions in youth. No other motive than compassion for the ladies who were given this honour can be attached to these marraiges. If there had been any less honourable motive, his choice would have fallen on others than widows, and under the Arab custom a man in his position could have plenty of youthful virgins.
I have said that change for the worse could not come over a man who had led an undoubtedly spotless life until he reached fifty-five. If the beauty of women could not excite his passions in youth and lead him away from the path of rectitude, how could it lead him away in old age? And what were the circumstances in which he lived in Medina during these years? It was not a life of ease and luxury that he was leading at the time; it was a life of hardness, because it was at this very time that he had to carry on a life-or-death struggle with the enemies of Islam. Huge armies came to crush him and the small band of Muslims at Medina. The whole of Arabia was aflame against him. He was not secure for a minute. Battles had to be fought in quich succession. Expeditions had to be arranged and sent. "Prophet of God! We are tired of being in arms day and night," his companions would say to him; and he had to console them by telling them that the time would come when a traveller would be able to go from one end of the country to the other without having any arms. The Jews and the Christians were his enemies along with the idolaters. His best friends were falling sometimes in battle and sometimes by treachery. It is possible for a man to lead a life of ease and luxury under such circumstances? Even if a man had the mind to lead a life of self-indulgence, which the Prophet according to all available evidence had not, this was not the opportune time for it. In such circumstances of warfare, with enemies within Medina and enemies all around it, with the number of Muslims being insignificantly small in comparison with the enemy, with news of assaults by the overwhelming numbers on all sides, even a profligate's life would be changed, to say nothing of a man of avowed purity of character, which no temptation could shake, turning into a profligate.
If the Prophet's days during this period were passed so strenuously, how did he pass the nights? He had a number of lawful wives, but he did not spend his nights in enjoyment with them. There is clearest evidence on record in the Holy Quran as well as Hadith that he passed half, and sometimes even two-thirds, of the night in prayers and in reciting the Holy Quran while standing in prayer. He would stand so long that his feet would get swollen. Could such a man be said to be taking wives for self-indulgence when the minutest details of his life as available to show us conclusively that it was a strenuous life furthest away from indulgence of any kind?
Let us now consider another point. Was any change really witnessed in the latter part of his life when he became the ruler of a state?
In the shepherd of the desert, in the Syrian trader,
in the solitary of Mount Hira, in the reformer in the minority
of one, in the exile of the Persian Chosroes and the Greek
Heraclius, we can still trace a substantial unity. I doubt
whether any other man, whose external conditions changed
so much, ever himself changed less to meet them: the
accidents are changed, the essence seems to me to be the same
in all" ... Bosworth Smith