His name has been invoked to justify the killing of more than 6,000 people in the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. But who was the man who founded a religion now claiming two billion followers?
In a collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, published almost two centuries after his death by Islamic scholar Sahih Bakhari, suicide is clearly proscribed: 'Do not kill yourselves, for indeed Allah is Most Merciful to you. Whoever takes his or her own life by any means has unjustly taken a life that Allah has made sacred. Its preservation is a duty incumbent on any individual.'
Muhammad's words ought to provide proof for those in any doubt as to the status of suicide in Islam. But if more is needed, go no further than the Muslim holy book, the Koran: 'A man was inflicted with wounds and he committed suicide, and so Allah said: "My slave has caused death on himself hurriedly, so I forbid Paradise for him."' But just who was Muhammad, regarded by Muslims as Allah's last and most important prophet in a procession that includes both Abraham - Ibrahim in Arabic - and Jesus - Isa? Tradition has it that he was born in the dusty, then war-torn, city of Mecca, just inland from the modern Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah, in 570AD. His father, Abdullah, died several weeks before his birth. When his mother died six years later, Muhammad was adopted and raised by his father's brother, Abu Talib.
Groomed as a trader from an early age, he was just 12 when he accompanied his uncle's merchant caravan as far as Syria. Such travels would become an important part of most of his adult life. Regarded as a reliable and honest negotiator in financial dealings, Muhammad was popularly known as 'Al-Ameen' - 'the Trustworthy'.
His reputation as a truly honest broker spread rapidly at a time when Arabs were feted for entrepreneurial skills. At 22, he was hired by a rich widower, Khadijah, for a business trip to Syria. The young man was quick to impress, and on his return received a marriage proposal from his employer via a rela tive. He was 25 years old. She was 40 and already twice widowed. They were together for a quarter of a century, producing six children - four daughters and two sons - before Khadijah's death in 620AD.
According to his family, Muhammad was prone to dreams and visions, occasionally falling into long, moody silences. An early indication of his spiritual calling happened in 605AD during the reconstruction of the Ka'bah in Mecca, a site holy to Arabs who at that time were followers of the prophets Ismail and Ibrahim. As the work neared completion, the workers argued over who would place the famous black stone - said to have originated from Allah - in its place. Someone suggested the task should fall to whoever turned up earliest for work the next day and, according to Islamic belief, this was Muhammad.
If this was an early sign of prophethood, his full awakening came much later. He was 40 years old when, during one of his many retreats to Mount Hira for meditation in the holy month of Ramadan, he received a revelation from the Archangel Gabriel who commanded him to 'Recite in the name of your Lord who created! He created man from that which clings. Recite, and thy Lord is most bountiful, He who has taught by the pen, taught man what he knew not'.
Terrified by the revelation, Muhammad rushed home and asked Khadijah to cover him in a blanket. He explained the tale to her. She reassured him: 'Allah will not let you down because you are kind to relatives, you speak only the truth, you help the poor, the orphan and the needy, and you are an honest man.' Convinced of her husband's greatness, she accepted the Angel Gabriel's visit as truth and was the first convert to Islam.
In the first three years of his mission, 40 men and women accepted Islam, becoming the first Muslims. Throughout, Muhammad was demonised by the ruling Quraish tribes of Mecca - idol-worshippers - who offered him bribes of money, land and even a kingship to abandon his teachings. Violence soon followed: Muslim businesses were boycotted and attacked, and the Prophet was regularly jeered on his way to Mecca.
Viewed today, historical circumstances - many of them favourable to the development of Arabian culture - contributed to the expansion of Islam throughout the region. They included social unrest between warring tribes in Mecca and Medina; a global move towards monotheism; a reaction against Hellenism in Syria and Egypt; and the declining fortunes of the Persian and Byzantine empires. Muhammad's gifts as statesman and administrator were perfectly suited to the needs and conditions of the day.
Muhammad received regular revelations from Gabriel over the following 23 years in the form of verses, known as ayat, which were recorded on a variety of materials, including leather, palm leaves, bark and the shoulder bones of animals.
As he memorised them, Muhammad instructed his scribes to record all of God's teachings. The resulting text, which included the five pillars of Islam (the declaration of faith, regular prayers, the distribution of wealth, fasting and pilgrimage), was collated as the Koran.
When Khadijah died, the prophet took Sawdah, a widow recently returned from Ethiopia, and Aishah, the daughter of a friend, as wives. He would marry on a further eight occasions - partly out of sadness after seeing all his sons die in their infancy. All his wives, named the 'Mothers of the Believers', were instrumental in spreading the teachings of Islam.
Slowly, the word of Islam began to spread, helped by religious envoys and their armies being dispatched across the Arab countries to spread the word of Allah. In 622AD, the leaders of the Quraish in Mecca, fearing the religion's ascent, hatched a plan to assassinate Muhammad. It was foiled at the last moment and in a defining moment that would confirm the religion's export throughout the world, Muhammad marched to Mecca with an army of 10,000 Muslims.
They met with little resistance by the city's holders and after promising forgiveness to the Meccans, the holy site of the Ka'bah was retaken by Muslims and adopted as the spiritual hub of the global Islamic wheel. The site is now host to the annual Haj festival - Islam's most important religious pilgrimage. By the year 630AD, almost all of Arabia had embraced the religion. A triumphant Muhammad performed his first and last pilgrimage to Mecca in 632AD. More than 120,000 men and women accompanied him that year. Two months later, aged 62, he fell ill and died. He was buried in Medina.
In a lecture in 1840, titled 'On Heroes: Hero Worship and the Heroic in History', the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle believed history to reveal Muhammad as 'a man rather taciturn in speech; silent when there was nothing to be said; but pertinent, wise, sincere, when he did speak; always throwing light on the matter'.
His last sermon, delivered on the parched heights of Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia just weeks before his death, reiterated the need for tolerance to people of all denominations: '¿an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.'
Born: 570AD Mecca, Arabia
Parents: Father Abdullah; mother Amina
Family: 11 wives; six children - Qasim, Zainab, Abdullah, Rukiyah,Kalsoom, Fatima, Ibrahim
Career: Negotiator, trader and traveller