According to this question, the predominant religion in Arabia before Islam was some kind of polytheism. While according to Muhammad's Wikipedia page,

According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad himself was a Hanif ..

the page defined "Hanifs" as "native pre-Islamic Arabs who professed a rigid monotheism", and said their historicity is disputed among scholars.

What was the historian's (not just Islamic tradition) view of Muhammad's pre-prophethood religion? According to the biography on Wikipedia, he only received revelation and start preaching Islam since age 40, and before that he was an honorable Arab, a merchant by profession.

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    I suggest that you replace "a Muslim Prophet" to "the Muslim Prophet" or "The Prophet of Islam" because it matters. He is not just a prophet, he is The Prophet. You can take that further since most of the faithful believe that he was "the last prophet" - which matters from both the theological and social point of view. Nov 28, 2016 at 15:38

5 Answers 5


Muhammad was a member of the Quraish tribe, which controlled the Kaaba in Mecca. Prior to Islam, the Kaaba was an important pagan pilgrimage site. So that suggests at least what his cousins and extended family may have believed.

Today the Kaaba is the official direction of Muslim prayer and all mosques and prayer locations will have a qibla to orient the supplicant towards the Kaaba (in some Western countries, the qibla is sometimes shorthanded by non-Muslims as pointing "east"). But prior to being the Muslim center of the world, it was a pagan site for centuries.

The Quraish took control of the site generations before Muhammad, and profited from that position. The Quraish generally followed a polytheistic pantheon. The Quraish wiki article quotes The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity:

The Qurayshite pantheon was composed principally of idols that were in the Haram of Makka, that is, Hubal (the most important and oldest deity), Manaf, Isaf, and Na'ila.

The wiki article also summarizes Abdullah Saeed, The Qur'an: An Introduction as stating that the Quraish had a pantheon of one higher God with multiple lesser Gods.

Note that the Quraish also formed the early opposition to Muhammad. The earliest stages of the religion were a quarrel over possession of Mecca and the Kaaba, so naturally the more powerful elements of Quraish opposed Muhammad, who was not from the most powerful elements of the tribe. He fled to Medina but eventually defeated Mecca and pardoned his tribesmen, who became early Muslims.

I'm not sure how much that tells you about what historical Muhammad may have believed, but it gives you some sense of the broader social environment.

  • Thanks for your answer! However, I am actually more interested to see his individual belief. The broader context of the various religions in Arabia at that time was already covered in the question I linked What was the religion of the Arabic people before conversion to Islam?
    – Louis Rhys
    Apr 16, 2014 at 6:00
  • the wars of Muhammad SAWW with Quraish shows he was not socially like them: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Badr also Uhod and Trench wars. Apr 16, 2014 at 9:31
  • @LouisRhys - Yes, I saw that in your question. I can't provide evidence any more narrowly than that. Most of my historical knowledge of the subject was incident to understanding modern history and works, like Sykes-Picot and Qutb/Milestones. I can't offer anything more specific than the general environment he was raised in. I also learned a fair bit about the religion itself in a course or two, but I don't recall any discussion of Muhammad prior belief (it may have been covered and I failed to retain the knowledge).
    – NL7
    Apr 16, 2014 at 14:26
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    @BattleofKarbala - Yes, as I pointed out, Muhammad engaged in conflict with the Quraish. But Muhammad was not a Muslim prior to his experience of being approached by God's angel and transcribing the Koran. So it's possible that as a child he was reared in the beliefs of his wider social grouping, or that he was taught a minority religion or no religion at all. The later conflict stems from Muhammad being Muslim, so doesn't necessarily tell us what he believed before he said God reached out to him.
    – NL7
    Apr 16, 2014 at 14:32

Firstly, there's no documentation or archaeological data available regarding the matter in question. Arabs of that time were mostly illiterate. There were extremely few individuals who could read and write. The culture of the period was almost entirely based on oral transmission.

All of the reports about his beliefs before prophethood is based on Islamic traditions. These traditions indicate that he was a member of the Arab tribe Banu Hashim who practiced monotheism. Al-Islam.org writes:

There was a small group of monotheists present in Arabia on the eve of the rise of Islam. Its members did not worship idols, and they were the followers of the Prophet Abraham. The members of the families of Muhammad, the future prophet, and Ali ibn Abi Talib, the future caliph, and most members of their clan – the Banu Hashim – belonged to this group.


The OP asked for historical accounts, unfortunately there is unlikely a complete and accurate first hand account Muhammad's life before his prophet-hood, including about his belief. According to Karen Armstrong, "We know practically nothing" about Muhammad's life before his receiving of revelation (and becoming a prophet), because he was not yet a major figure at that time and people did not think it worthwhile to record about him.

Only during the last ten years of his life, after he became a major political leader and people around him realized that history was being made, his life was recorded in much more details.

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    I think you miss a point there. Because some of the people who "realized that history was being made" were his closest friends and companions from early days of his life. So, naturally, they had known many things about him, in detail. We too know many things about his early life thanks to them. I do not agree with Ms. Armstrong about this.
    – biri
    Dec 16, 2014 at 21:09
  • @biri You said 'Because some of the people who "realized that history was being made" were his closest friends and companions from early days of his life'. Examples?
    – user69715
    Dec 18, 2014 at 19:50
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    One example is Abu Bakr -the first caliph. They met in childhood and he passed away 2 years after Muhammad. Uthman (3rd caliph) is another example. There are of course more people who had known some details about his life and survived at least until his prophethood. Many scenes from Muhammad's early or later life and thousands of words which are narrated from him by these people still can be found in various hadith books such as Sahih al Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.
    – biri
    Dec 18, 2014 at 22:52

To add to the answer's already here:

Muhammad would have probably been brought up in the pagan culture of his tribe.

However, according to accounts, his job as a young man was to lead his uncle's merchant caravans. This would have meant travelling from Mecca to other big trading spots in the area, like Damascus for example. This would have exposed the young Muhammad to Abrahamic monotheism, namely Christianity and Judaism (indeed I believe the hadiths mention that Muhammad's encounter with a Christian monk had a great influence on him, don't quote me on this though).

  • I think you wanted to say "had a great influence over the MONK", right? There can be no hadith mentioning otherwise, that's practically impossible. Actually, according to hadiths from reliable sources -such as Bukhari- we learn that, in two different occasions, He met with two different monks and they honoured him. I don't remember in detail, but you can make your own research. The names of the monks are Bahira and Nastura, I don't know exactly how to spell these.
    – biri
    Dec 15, 2014 at 9:11

Hanif is not in fact a religion. Hanif is a description for a believer. any kind of believer having any divine religion like Christian or Muslim can be a Hnif believer.

This can be seen in Quran. when Quran calls the prophet Ibrahim a Hanif Muslim:

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim [submitting to Allah]. And he was not of the polytheists. http://tanzil.net/#3:67

In this verse the two words Hanif (حنیف) and Muslim (مسلم) are used for describing prophet Ibrahim a.s. this translator has translated the word Hanif to "one inclining toward truth".

According to Islamic sources although most of Arabs were polytheists but prophet Muhammad SAWW and his fathers (who are children's of prophet Ibrahim a.s. and Ismael a.s.) never have been polytheists and all have been monotheists. all the genealogy line from Ibrahim a.s. to Muhammad SAWW have been believers and monotheists.

Please note although Muhammad SAWW started preaching Islam at age 40 but this does not mean he himself did not know anything about Islam before it. he was practicing Islam from when he was child and never committed any sin all over his life and if he did not preach Islam publicly before 40 it was for political conditions of that time and if he preached Islam before the suitable conditions and before finding enough secret supporters he would be killed by polytheist state King and state and culture and people of that time and so never could preach Islam. when he started preaching he and his supporters were kept under sanctions and were enforced to live out of city without have any right to buy or sell anything and the polytheists tries to kill him many tiems and after having many fights and wars with polytheists who their boss was Abu Sufyan finally Muslims after many years could conquer Mecca the base of polytheists without war.

He himself said do not follow my ancestors before than Adnan (the 20th ancestor) and connect it to Ismaeel (the son of prophet Ibrahim) because what Arabs say about before Adnan is not correct.


Ancestors of prophet SAWW

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    The last paragraph of your answer sounds more inspired by belief than by facts. Do you have sources for it?
    – Jeroen K
    Apr 14, 2014 at 11:29
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    @JeroenK it is both historical and belief. all beliefs are not necessarily against the history. historical sources say his father were monotheist too. but historically his fathers are not known by names more than 20 levels of ancestors. but saying he is a children of Ibrahim a.s. is an historical fact but the names of fathers before 20th father is not known. because there is no available history about name of his fathers before 20th father. Apr 15, 2014 at 3:41
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    @BattleofKarbala werther it is or not, I reiterate, he specifically asked for non-"islamic tradition" sources, so this does not answer the question.
    – o0'.
    Apr 15, 2014 at 8:08
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    @BattleofKarbala as Lohoris and Jeroen pointed out, in this question I am looking for the historian's point of views as opposed to Islamic tradition. I understand the Quran is the main source of Islamic tradition, but I don't think it's generally treated as a history book. I guess Muslim historians are okay, if you have such source, as long as it is written objectively based on historical/scientific method, not merely drawn from scripture.
    – Louis Rhys
    Apr 16, 2014 at 6:08
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    @BattleofKarbala Qur'an is a "history book" per Muslim belief, but it is not considered as an authoritative source on historical writings by general academician. Consider this question: was Qur'an written to be considered as a revelation or as a history lesson? Also, per general concession of academician, there is no difference between "religion" and "belief" (as you've put "Hanif" into the dichotomy of belief). I'm afraid you're mixing your answer with your personal belief.
    – deathlock
    Apr 17, 2014 at 22:42

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