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Muhammad (c.570-632 CE), the founder of Islam, was in foster care and kinship care as a child.

Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia to Amina and Abdallah. Abdallah died before or shortly after Muhammad’s birth, and Muhammad lived with a foster family for approximately the first two years of his life.

According to Karen Armstrong, it was not unusual for Arabic children of Muhammad’s era to be given to Bedouin desert foster parents.

Children were often given out to foster-parents in the desert, because it was believed to be healthier for them than in the city. Bedouin women were willing to take a Qurayshi baby to foster because they could expect presents and help from the family, but because Amina [had little] nobody was very interested in Muhammad. It had been a particularly bad year in Arabia and many of the tribes had suffered from severe famine. The tribe of Bani Sa’d were desperate. Halima bint Abu Dhuayb, a member of one of its poorest families, decided to take Muhammad anyway because she had not been able to find another suckling (Armstrong, 2001, 76).

Amina died when Muhammad was six years old. Muhammad’s eighty-year-old maternal grandfather took the boy to live with him, but he died too, only two years later.

Muhammad was then taken in by his paternal uncle Abu Talib.

Tradition lays great stress on Abu Talib’s fondness for his nephew and his good care of him. It has been suggested that here, too, hagiography may have twisted the facts. At all events, Muhammad no doubt had to perform the small services expected of a child (Rodinson, 48).

Little else is known about Muhammad’s childhood, but Karen Armstrong believes that the fact of being an orphan impacted Muhammad negatively. Despite being cared for by Abu Talib and his grandfather before that, being an orphan reduced Muhammad’s status in the community, making it difficult for him to achieve any great success as a merchant. It meant he also had difficulty finding a wife.

Muhammad was employed by the wealthy widow, Khadija bint Khuwaylid, when the couple married.

His marriage to Khadija was the saving of Muhammad and opened the door to a brilliant future. He had no further material anxieties. From the poor relation of a great family, earning his living in the service of others, he became a person of importance (Rodinson, 50)

Despite his success, Muhammad was restless and it was his habit to withdraw to a cave for periods of contemplation. During one of these retreats, and without warning, a voice spoke to Muhammad.

‘You are the Messenger of God.’

‘I was standing,’ Muhammad is reported to have said, ‘but I fell on my knees and dragged myself along while the upper part of my chest was trembling. I went in to Khadija and said ”Cover me, cover me!” until the terror had left me‘ (Rodinson, 71).

Karen Armstrong (1993, 163) says that, unlike the Torah, “the Koran was revealed to Muhammad bit by bit, line by line and verse by verse over a period of twenty-three years. The revelations continued to be a painful experience.”

For three years after the initial revelation, Muhammad did not preach openly, but eventually, and believing he was ordered to by God, Muhammad invited a small group to his home and told them of his experiences.

A core group of converts to Islam formed around Muhammad, now called ‘the Prophet’ and ‘Messenger of God’ by his followers, in the early years of the revelation. They formed the nucleus of what later Muslims would call ‘the Companions’, or the first generation of Muslims who lived with and knew Muhammad (Brown, 15).

Initially, there was opposition to his ideas of monotheism in a polytheistic world, but his uncle Abu Talib – although never converting to Islam – gave Muhammad protection against his opponents.

However, in 619 his uncle died and, a month later, his beloved wife died too.

Two months after Khadija’s death, it is said that Muhammad married another widow, Sawda, and shortly after, became engaged to Aisha who was only six or seven years of age, although the marriage was not immediately consummated. The marriage allowed for a political alliance with the child’s father, Abu Bakr. A fourth marriage – to Hafsa, eighteen and a widow – also provided another political alliance for Muhammad. The fifth marriage was to Zainab, a cousin whose husband had died in battle. According to Clinton Bennet, Muhammad married a total of eleven times, although some accounts say there were as many as twenty-one wives. Bennet points out that after Muhammad restricted the number of wives within Islam to four, he did not marry again.

To escape persecution, Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medine in 622 and established a Muslim community there.

By the time Muhammad died on 8 July 632, much of the Arabian Peninsula had converted to Islam. Today, there are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims in the world.


Armstrong, K. A History of God. London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1993.

Armstrong, K. Muhammad: a biography of the Prophet. London: Phoenix, 2001.

Bennett, Clinton. In search of Muhammad. London: Cassell, 1998.

Brown, Jonathan A.C. Muhammad: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

“Childhood of Prophet Muhammad.” 

Diamant, Jeff. “The countries with the 10 largest Christian populations and the 10 largest Muslim populations.” Pew Research Center, 1 April 2019. 

Rodinson, Maxime. Muhammad. New York: New York Review of Books, 1994.

Sinai, Nicolai. “Muhammad. Prophet of Islam.” Britannica. 

Zeidan, Adam. “Hijrah. Islam.” Britannica,