Arabia in the sixth century was dangerous and chaotic.
[Leader: On a map or globe, indicate Arabian Peninsula, sweeping over Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Libya.]
There were shortages of food and other goods, which led many to steal. A few people were rich, but most were very poor. The polytheism most people followed—worship of many divine beings—did not offer much concrete guidance for how to live. Often, people just did whatever they wanted.
Into this wild setting, in 570 CE in the city of Mecca, a baby boy was born. His father had died before he was born, and his mother named him Muhammad, which means "highly praised." Sadly, Muhammad's mother died, too, when he was only five. An uncle adopted the little boy and gave him a kind upbringing. Even when he was very little, Muhammad was sweet and generous. He seemed to have learned from his own sorrow to be compassionate toward other people's suffering.
The family was not rich, so when he grew up, Muhammad learned the caravan trade. When he was 25, he was hired to run the large caravan operation of a rich trader named Khadijah. Khadijah greatly respected the skill and honesty of her young employee. Muhammad respected and trusted her, also, and in time Khadijah, a widow, proposed that they marry. Their ages differed by 15 years (Khadijah was 40, Muhammad 25), but this did not matter to them: Muhammad and Khadijah married and were very happy.
Muhammad managed Khadijah's caravan business for the next 15 years, and often, to escape the bustle of Mecca, Muhammad took a little food and went to a cave a little distance from the city. There he stayed for a few days and meditated.
On one of these visits, Muhammad fell asleep, and was awakened by a voice echoing through the cave. Muhammad opened his eyes and saw an angel, who ordered him, "Proclaim!" Muhammad did not understand. The angel said it brought a message from Allah that Muhammad must memorize and proclaim to all people.
Muhammad objected! He could neither read nor write, and did not feel competent to proclaim the word of God. The angel insisted Muhammad was chosen, and no other. Muhammad must proclaim the word of Allah.
Muhammad went home and told Khadijah of his experience. Khadijah told Muhammad she believed in the angel's message, and believed Muhammad was worthy to be God's chosen Messenger. She urged Muhammad to accept the charge given him by the angel Gabriel, and to begin proclaiming as Allah wished.
Muhammad took Khadijah's advice and left the caravan business to preach the word of Allah. Muhammad proclaimed that there was only one God, and that Islam, which means submission to God, was the only true religion. Muhammad called the followers of Islam Muslims, and Khadijah was the first Muslim.
Muhammad told people to pray to Allah five times a day to show their complete devotion to God. He told them to be generous and help those less fortunate than themselves. He told them to be honest, to not steal or lie, and to be faithful to their families.
At first, hardly anybody listened to Muhammad. After three years of work, fewer than forty people had converted to Islam. But Muhammad remained faithful to Allah. He continued proclaiming and by the end of ten years, hundreds of families had converted to Islam.
The leaders of Mecca became worried. A major source of income for the city was pilgrims visiting Mecca's hundreds of shrines to gods and goddesses. If Muhammad convinced them there was only one god, the city would lose much money. The leaders also did not like Muhammad telling them they should give up their wild ways. They decided to get rid of Muhammad.
At this critical time, a group came from the city of Medina, about 215 miles north of Mecca, to see Muhammad. Their city needed help, and they had heard he was wise. The people of Medina invited Muhammad to rule them. Muhammad said he was willing, if everyone in Medina would convert to Islam. The people agreed, so instead of being imprisoned, Muhammad became ruler of a city. The year of the Hijra, when Muhammad and his followers fled to Medina, was 622 CE.
From this time, Islam spread quickly. Muhammad lived only ten more years, but by the time he died, Islam had spread to the point that Muhammad controlled the entire Arabian Peninsula. By the end of the century, his followers had conquered the lands of present-day Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Turkey, Israel, all of North Africa, and Spain, and had crossed the Pyrenees mountain range into France.
Muhammad was a simple man who did not think he was worthy to be God's Messenger. He nevertheless responded to God's call with energy and faithfulness and proclaimed what would become the religion of nearly a fourth of the people on Earth. Mohammad began life as a penniless orphan, and died the uncontested ruler of all of Arabia and prophet of a faith that would endure through the ages.