Without Muhammad, there would be no Islam. Orphaned at a young age, Muhammad was a successful merchant before receiving the startling angelic revelations that would make him the first and last prophet of the Muslim world.
Muhammad was born in 570 C.E. in the Arabian town of Mecca, already a popular pilgrimage site. The people of Mecca belonged to familial tribes and mainly worshipped many different gods and idols, although there were also some Christian and Jewish settlements [source: Sinai and Watt].
Muhammad's father died shortly before his birth, and his mother passed away when he was 6. Muhammad was raised by other family members and trained as a merchant. At 25 years old, he married a wealthy widow named Khadijah who had hired him to do some trade for her. Together they had four daughters (and two sons who died in infancy) [source: PBS].
At the age of 40, Muhammad was meditating in a cave near Mecca when he was visited by the angel Gabriel, who commanded him to "read" or "recite in the name of your Lord." (This saying would become part of the Quran, the Islamic sacred book.) Muhammad fled the cave in awe and fear, and ran to tell Khadijah. She believed and comforted him, and took him to her cousin, a learned Christian, who confirmed that the angel's visitation qualified him as a prophet [source: Sinai and Watt].
Muhammad continued to receive revelations from God but didn't go public with them for three years. When he did, his monotheistic preaching angered the idol-worshiping tribes in Mecca, stirring up the first tensions between Muhammad's early followers and the leaders of those tribes.
Muhammad and his followers eventually fled to Medina, in North Africa, for refuge in 622, but only after Muhammad experienced what's known as his Night Journey. According to one version of the story, Muhammad was transported from Mecca to Jerusalem by the angel Gabriel on a mythical winged creature where he met with the prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and briefly ascended to heaven to learn at the throne of Allah. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is believed to be the site of the Night Journey [source: Oxford Dictionary of Islam].
Muhammad was both a spiritual preacher and a political and military leader. After several battles and broken treaties with the tribes of Mecca, he eventually returned to Mecca triumphant and secured the town as a Muslim stronghold before his death from an unknown illness at age 60 in 632 [source: PBS].
Within the religious tradition of Islam, Muhammad is a spiritual giant and miracle worker on par with Jesus or Moses. The Quran is a collection of every revelation that Muhammad received from Allah. Examples and stories from Muhammad's life form the basis of the Sunnah, a collection of traditional social and legal customs in the Islamic community. This, along with the Quran, is the source for most of the laws governing Muslim life.
Outside of the Muslim religious tradition, Muhammad was for centuries dismissed as a power-hungry charlatan who invented the revelations recorded in the Quran [source: Sinai and Watt]. Considering the global spread of Islam, most religious scholars place him among the most influential religious and cultural figures in human history.