Muhammad, a Charismatic Leader?


Makers of Arab History, by Philip K. Hitti, attempts to explain the religious, political, and other cultural movements in Arab history through the lives of representative leaders.[1] One of those leaders is the Prophet Muhammad about whom Hitti stated, “history records the names of several men who founded religions, others who fathered nations, still others who instituted states, but if there was a man other than Prophet Muhammad, who initiated all three institutions, history must have forgotten his name”.[2] In trying to understand how Muhammad was able to control and influence multiple facets of his community this paper will investigate two characteristic traits, charisma and leadership, which may further explain why so many people see Muhammad as such a unique influential figure.

My interest in this topic derives from the accounts of how Muhammad simultaneously – and successfully – operated multiple departments of his ummah (Islamic community). This includes religion, military, politics, adjudication, and executive roles. Thus, the primary question that will be examined is, given the history of Muhammad’s influential contribution to the growth and prosperity of his Meccan community, what key contributing factors helped Muhammad become the charismatic leader his followers have believed him to be? In other words, how and why did Muhammad emerge as a charismatic leader?

This study is primarily influenced by Max Weber’s analysis of the charismatic leader. The approach draws inspiration from the works of Ibrahim Gorener – author of Jesus and Muhammad as Charismatic Leaders in their Social Settings: a Weberian Study – and Liyakat N. Takim – author of The Heirs of the Prophet – as these scholars have used the Weberian model to analyze Muhammad.[3] Furthermore, my interest in this topic also derives from the accounts from the earliest biography of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq, which I read in conjunction with modern works on the sociological and psychological aspects of a charismatic leader. Although these three works are significantly different in methodology, their explanation and description of a charismatic leader correlate with one another and offer a different approach in understanding the sense in which Muhammad could be regarded as an ideal representative of a charismatic leader. Accordingly, the scope of this paper will discuss how Muhammad’s charismatic leadership abilities and qualities emerged during his pre-Madinan life – for I am primarily concerned with how Muhammad began assuming the responsibilities of leadership before he became powerful and popular in context of  the Weberian categories adopted by Gorener and Takim.

This paper will develop two main sections which will attempt to answer the aforementioned question, how and why Muhammad emerged as a charismatic leader. The first section will provide a conceptual understanding of charisma and leadership, defining and explaining what the two concepts mean and what is expected of an individual who is considered to be a charismatic leader. This will enable the reader to relate the conceptual discussion to the second section, which will discuss Muhammad as a leader with a focus on his charismatic traits, his ability to garner a following and the way he emerged as a charismatic leader of his community.


A Conceptual Understanding of Charisma and Leadership


Charisma is derived from the Greek word charis, meaning “grace, kindness, or favor.”[4] It is defined as a spiritual power, virtue, or personal quality that gives an individual influence or authority, through an office, function and/or position that confers or is thought to confer on the person holding it, an unusual ability for leadership, worthiness of veneration, or the like, over large numbers of people.[5] Qualities of a charismatic leader include, (1) the ability of an individual, who is needed by his society, to bring about change from their current living conditions, (2) the ability of the leader to function in order to demand a following, obedience, and loyalty, (3) the recognition afforded by his followers of his charismatic ability as well as his prophetic message, (4) the possession of extraordinary powers, (5) an exemplary lifestyle of a detachment from the routine daily life, and (6) the possession of leadership model that can be routinized into the collective life of the community.[6] According to Max Weber, charismatic leaders are seen as having the ability to radiate the divine force of charisma because they and their followers genuinely believe that a leader embodies a specific supernatural gift of body and mind, which is considered intrinsic to the personality of a leader.[7]

Central to the charismatic traits of a leader is what his followers perceive to be the divine sanctification of his mission. His divine mission, therefore, must prove itself to be legitimate in that those who faithfully surrender to him truly recognize his charismatic leadership and his ability to bring his message to fruition. If they do not fully subscribe to the cause, then his charismatic claim collapses, thus questioning his call as a master sent by God.[8] However, if his followers unconditionally pledge allegiance to him it is not necessary for the leader to continuously showcase his charismatic claim because leadership tends to be charismatic only in the early stages of the growth of a movement[9], primarily because the leader’s mission is in its infancy and he is in need of followers to strengthen his influence. One way to expedite this process is through a persuasive and personable approach, thus enabling the leader to attract and maintain a popular following – such abilities are attributed to special spiritual powers, as mentioned above.[10] And as word spreads of a leader who possesses unique qualities unmatched by his fellow peers, a mythical aura begins to surround the stories about him. Once the leader has gained a stable foundation and following, he is then able to lead by example. This leads to the preservation of his mission once he passes away, therefore canonizing his leadership values, teachings, as well as his lifestyle – which serve as ‘lessons to live by’ for all future followers.

Another extraordinary attribute of individuals in possession of charisma is their ability to lead and inspire without necessarily being in possession of formal authority to seek obedience. This extraordinary attribute is a quality or gift that makes the individual more important and different from anyone else.[11] In addition to this ability to lead and inspire, the charismatic figure can also command respect because he has an innate gift of grace that is opposed to all institutional routines. However, what allows a charismatic individual to lead and inspire without being in possession of formal authority? First, one must look at the qualifications in possessing formal authority. In order for an individual to be an elected public official, the ruling power would need to be an accepted governing body by the people, who in turn are satisfied by their living conditions under the present regime. But a charismatic individual does not derive his right from their will, in the manner of an election. Instead, it is the duty of those to whom he addresses his mission to recognize him as their qualified leader.[12] This in turn means that if a charismatic leader is able to lead and inspire without the necessity of formal authority then the people are dissatisfied with their current living condition and are seeking a change within their social strata.


To understand how a charismatic individual is able to command a following as well as lead them towards a morally challenging public order we need to investigate the conceptual meaning of leadership. Leadership is defined as the position or function of a leader and his/her ability, act and/or instance to lead, guide and/or direct a following.[13] The notion of leadership arises as a necessary part of a relationship and each individual’s need to develop through that relationship with one another.[14] In other words, the leader enables other individuals in particular situations to contribute in a large measure to the betterment of the group and to the achievement of a common goal.[15] And although the leader lives within the society and provides guidance for his followers, he is not involved in the established structures of life and in many aspects his way of thinking is different.[16] But even though his lifestyle is in contrast with his followers, the leader is still able to relate with them as well as gain their trust and allegiance.

However, leadership is not just a quality of the individual and his ability to provide guidance and purpose. It is also a role dependent upon the presence of anumber of variables: (1) directing the productive activities of the group,(2) defending the group against external threats, (3) maintaining group cohesion, and so on.[17] A leader is one who plays a role that varies with the course of group formation and is bound up with expectations as to the direction, control, and modification of the activities of the other group members.[18] Moreover, a leader deals with problems of defining different tasks, suggesting solutions, and moving the group towards achieving that common goal.[19] In order for such advancements to take place the leader has to dominate the group’s activity, especially in the early stages of the problem solving process. But once the leader builds a strong moral foundation and following, he can begin to entrust certain decision making duties to his companions and followers.

In addition, a leader is generally subject to higher expectations than other group members. Therefore, if he falls short of his responsibilities and the group does not succeed in attaining their goals, he is left to endure harsh criticism and subsequent rejection. Thus, the test of any great charismatic leader resides not only in his ability to create a single event or great movement, but also in his ability to leave a continuous impact on an institutional structure; to transform any given institutional setting by infusing into it some of his charismatic visions.[20]


Seeing Muhammad as a Charismatic Leader

Early Signs of Muhammad’s Charismatic Traits

To further elaborate the conceptual discussion above, a charismatic individual is perceived by his followers to have exceptional or even superhuman qualities.[21] These qualities are regarded as being endowed by a divine being. Because of the leader’s purported connection with the divine, charisma is a quality that is frequently associated with holiness, heroism, or an acute sense of mission or calling.[22] This association between charisma and the notion of holiness, heroism, or a calling may involve a subjective or internal orientation brought out of suffering, conflicts, and/or enthusiasm, which may take place in times of emotional, physical, financial, social, ethical, religious, and/or political distress. It may then result in a radical alteration of the established attitudes and directions of action – such as the norms and customs which have been accepted by the community – with a completely new orientation of these attitudes toward the different problems and structures of their “world”. These include unity, charity, spirituality, modesty, and such other individual and social matters that demand active and immediate response. [23]

There are a number of accounts in the biographical literature that depict a young Muhammad who exhibited exceptional and superhuman qualities.[24] The first example is from Ibn Ishaq who relates the story of when baby Muhammad was to be suckled by his foster-mother, Halima d. Abu Dhuayb. Halima’s initial willingness to nurse Muhammad came with much reservation because she, along with all the other women, was hoping for monetary compensation since Muhammad was an orphan. When she finally agreed to take him in and placed him by her bosom, her breasts overflowed with milk which Muhammad drank until he was satisfied.[25] A second example comes during Muhammad’s younger years. As he was assisting his brother attend to the sheep, two men – dressed in all white and carrying a golden basin filled with snow – came up to Muhammad, grabbed him, and proceeded to open his belly where they extracted his heart, split it in two, and removed a black drop from within.[26] This specific narrative carries the implication that Muhammad was being purified and not a single drop of this dark force ever touched him. These pious narratives that relate supernatural events throughout the early years of Muhammad’s life were accepted by his immediate followers and the subsequent faith community as testaments to his intrinsic supernatural gift.

Another feature of the relation between charisma and the notion of holiness involves a subjective or internal orientation that is the consequence of suffering, conflict, and/or enthusiasm, that may take place in times of emotional, physical, economic, ethical, religious, and/or political distress. One well circulated narrative that captures this feature depicts a young Muhammad’s encounter with a Christian Monk by the name of Bahira (after their conversation, Bahira foretells the prophetic career of Muhammad). Upon their conversation Bahira states, “boy, I ask you by al-Lat and al-Uzza to answer my question.” Bahira phrased his statement in such a way because he had heard Muhammad’s people swearing by these gods. To this, Muhammad replied, “do not ask me by al-Lat and al-Uzza, for by Allah nothing is more hateful to me than these two.”[27] A response such as this indicated that Muhammad, even at a young age, was religiously in conflict with the beliefs and traditions of his people. Stories such as the ones mentioned above foreshadow an adult Muhammad who had trouble with the customs and practices of his society, and how he purposed and pursued ways to radically alter the central system of attitudes and directions of his community with a completely new orientation and attitude towards the different problems and structures of their environment – for instance, a more unified community based on respect, honesty, trust, integrity, and monotheism.

Muhammad’s Recognition by his Followers

What is ultimately significant for the validity of charisma is the recognition from followers who believe that their charismatic leader possesses exceptional powers or qualities, which can be revealed by demonstrable exercises.[28] A charismatic leader is not merely forceful and strong but one whose authority is based on supporters devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of his leadership. One way in which a leader can display his exemplary character or his exceptional qualities is through his own way of life. Ultimately, the holder of charisma must stand outside the ties of this world, and his followers must also reject all ties to any external order in favor of the exclusive glorification of the genuine mentality of the prophet and hero.[29]

Furthermore, there is one important charismatic trait that needs to be reemphasized at this point, namely, a charismatic leader is not required to constantly prove his charismatic claim or mission for the rest of his life. Instead, the most pivotal moment in which he must be charismatic only occurs in the early stages of the growth of his movement[30], primarily because the leader’s mission is in its formative years and he is in search of followers to strengthen his cause. But once he has gained a stable foundation and following, his charisma, teachings, and way of life become routine and through this he is able to effortlessly attract more followers without having to prove anything – whether it is his prophecy, message, charismatic ability, leadership credentials, or any other relevant traits.

One example where Muhammad displayed an exceptional quality came during the beginning of his prophecy. His first act of public worship was outside the Ka’ba – along with his wife, Khadija, and his cousin Ali b. Abi Talib – which led to the conversion of an individual who merely witnessed the Prophet’s ablution and prostration, all the while Muhammad did not preach one word about Islam or God. One witness (Ismail b. Iyas b. Afif), is claimed to have said, “would that I could have believed that day and been a third!”[31] There are numerous variants of this narrative; however the basic line is the same: Ismail is genuinely drawn to this new religion by simply witnessing Muhammad practice his faith and as a result firmly accepts Islam. This story has a deeper meaning in terms of religious conversion. It symbolizes the spiritual power of persuasion in a leader who is able to change and influence someone’s way of life by simply praying and prostrating without engaging in any discourse about the new religion.

It is not until after three years of privately preaching and teaching to his friends and family that Muhammad begins his public ministry, facing much hostility that results in persecution, ridicule and hatred to the point of abuse and threatening retaliations. It has been documented by Ibn Ishaq that Muhammad once said, “I have never invited anyone to accept Islam but he has shown signs of reluctance, suspicion, and hesitation.”[32] In spite of the initial difficulty in proving the authenticity of his divine mission in hopes of gathering a faithful following to accept his prophetic mission and believe in his message, Muhammad was still able to garner followers.

The first example comes from a conversation between members of the Quraysh and al-Walid b. al-Mughira (a man of good standing within the community).[33] According to Ibn Ishaq’s account, al-Mughira, on one occasion recommended that the people unanimously agree on one opinion about Muhammad in the event of having to explain their fellow tribesmen:

They replied, ‘You give us your opinion about him.’ He said, ‘No, you speak and I will listen.’ They said, ‘He is a kahin.’ [an Arabian priest often seen as being possessed] He said, ‘By God, he is not that, for he has not the unintelligent murmuring and rhymed speech of a kahin.’ ‘Then he is possessed,’ they said. ‘No, he is not that,’ he said, ‘we have seen possessed ones, and here is no choking, spasmodic movements and whispering.’ ‘Then he is a poet,’ they said. ‘No, he is no poet, for we know poetry in all its forms and metres.’ ‘Then he is a sorcerer.’ ‘No, we have seen sorcerers and their sorcery, and here is no spitting and no knots.’ ‘Then what are we to say… ‘He replied, ‘By God, his speech is sweet, and his root is a palm-tree whose branches are fruitful, and everything you have said would be known to be false…’[34]

The second example comes at a time when many Medinans were traveling to Mecca for trade – in particular, the Khazraj tribe, an Arab tribe who had affiliations with the Jews of Medina. Some of the Khazraj shaykhs came in contact with Muhammad, who would invite them to converse as he expounded the teachings of Islam and recited the Quran.[35] The Khazraj tribe, along with other Arab tribes ofMedina, who for the most part were polytheists and idolaters, had prior knowledge of a monotheistic concept of God through their interactions with the Jews. There were even instances where the Jews used to say to the Arab tribes, “a prophet will be sent soon. His day is at hand. We shall follow him and kill you by his aid as Ad and Iram perished.”[36] So when they heard the apostle’s message they said one to another, “This is the very prophet of whom the Jews warned us. Don’t let them get to him before us!”[37] Thereupon they accepted Muhammad’s teaching and became Muslims, saying, “We have left our people, for no tribe is so divided by hatred and rancor as they. Perhaps God will unite them through you.”[38]

A third example is a story of how Hamza b. Abdul-Muttalib accepted Islam. The story begins with Muhammad on the receiving end of a verbal assault as a man passed by the prophet, insulting him and behaving most offensively, speaking spitefully of Muhammad’s religion and trying to bring him into disrepute, but the prophet did not speak a word.[39] Muhammad’s restraint and composure against such verbal abuse was one of the defining characteristics of his exemplary behavior. Many stories similar to this also shows a forgiving Muhammad who is more focused on his mission and followers then seeking revenge on an “enemy”. And it is this type of life style that would draw people like Hamza, Utba b. Rabia[40] and al-Tufayl b. Amr al-Dausi[41] to Islam. These three examples are a microcosm of how the initial converts chose to follow Muhammad based on his merit, his life style, and his ‘lead by example’ mentality. As a result, his authority was based more on his supporter’s devotion to his exceptional sanctity and exemplary character rather than any form of fear or compulsory.

Thus in conclusion, Muhammad emerged as a charismatic leader during his time in Mecca because of his ability to bring about change, to demonstrate a lifestyle detached from the norms of his society, and present an alternative that exemplified a more pious and fruitful life. Rather than force change or demand obedience, he carried a level of awareness that demanded attention and attracted curiosity, as a result leading many individuals to believe in him and his cause as something greater than the traditions and customs that have been sewn into society.


End Notes

[1] Philip K. Hitti, Makers of Arab History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968), preface.

[2] Hitti, 3.

[3] As Gorener and Takim discuss Muhammad’s prophetic career and how he was a charismatic leader, my focus is on pre-Madinan Muhammad and how his charismatic leadership qualities surfaced.

[4] I. Gorener, “Jesus and Muhammad as Charismatic Leaders in their Social Settings: A Weberian Study” (PhD diss., United Theological Seminary, 1997), 19.

[5], s.v. “charisma.”

[6] Gorener, 21.

[7] Liyakat N. Takim, The Heirs of the Prophet (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006), 3.

[8] Max Weber, Max Weber on charisma and Institution building (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), 22.

[9]Encyclopedia of Sociology (Connecticut: The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., 1974), 37.

[10] Encyclopedia of Sociology, 70.

[11] Gorener, 19-20.

[12] Weber, 20.

[13], s.v. “leadership.”

[14]Bryan S. Turner, The Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 331.

[15] London H.J. Eysenck, Wurzburg W. Arnold, and Meili R. Berne, Encyclopedia of Psychology (Ney York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 184.

[16] Gorener, 33.

[17] Encyclopedia of Sociology, 1086.

[18] Eysenck, 184.

[19] Encyclopedia of Sociology, 1086.

[20] Weber, xxi.

[21]Encyclopedia of Sociology, 37.

[22] Takim, 3.

[23]Weber, xxiii.

[24] The fact that this material might be the result of later developments of the hagiographical literature is understood, but for this paper, the assumption will be made that these childhood stories about Muhammad were known by his immediate community.

[25] Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad. Translated by Apollinaire Guillaume (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 71.

[26] Ishaq, 72.

[27] Ishaq, 80.

[28]Turner, 58.

[29] Weber, 24.

[30]Encyclopedia of Sociology, 37.

[31] Ishaq, 113.

[32] Ishaq, 116.

[33] Ishaq, 121.

[34] Ishaq, 121.

[35] Ishaq, 197.

[36] Ishaq, 198.

[37] Ishaq, 198.

[38] Ishaq, 198.

[39] Ishaq, 131.

[40] A chief who decided to wager a deal with Muhammad in order to distance his tribe from the prophet, but in turn realized the uncompromising power in Muhammad’s speech and could not deny what was spoken.

[41] A poet and an intelligent man who was vehemently warned by his community to avoid any contact with Muhammad, but he concluded that being an intelligent man and knowing right from wrong he should hear what Muhammad had to say, and from the words spoken by Muhammad he soon after became a Muslim.


Bibliography, “charisma,”, “leadership,”

Encyclopedia of Sociology. Connecticut: The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., 1974.

Eysenck, London H.J., Wurzburg W. Arnold, and Meili R. Berne. Encyclopedia of Psychology. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Gorener, I. “Jesus and Muhammad as Charismatic Leaders in their Social Settings: A Weberian Study.” PhD diss., United Theological Seminary, 1997.

Hitti, Philip K. Makers of Arab History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968.

Ishaq, Ibn. The Life of Muhammad. Translated by Apollinaire Guillaume. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Sachedina, Abdulaziz. “The Content of Early Revelation.” Power point lecture presented at RELI 311: Muhammad and the Quran, University of Virginia, February 4, 2009).

Sachedina, Abdulaziz. “The First Muslims: the earliest converts.” Power point lecture presented at RELI 311: Muhammad and the Quran, University of Virginia, February 11, 2009.

Takim, Liyakat N. The Heirs of the Prophet. New York: State Universtiy of New York Press,

Turner, Bryan S. The Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Weber, Max. Max Weber on charisma and Institution building. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s