By Kerby Anderson
Any social or political movement usually takes on the attributes and characteristics of its founder. That is also true of a religion. In order to understand the Muslim religion, we need to begin with Muhammad.
Islam is a monotheistic religion based upon the holy book, the Qur’an, which its followers believe was sent by God through the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad. Additional teachings are also recorded in the Hadith.
The foundational belief of Islam is the monotheistic belief that God is one. In Arabic, God is called Allah. The name Allah was used before the time of Muhammad and does not specify any gender. Because Islam teaches the unity of God, Muslims reject the Christian doctrine of the trinity of God. Muslims also reject the Eastern religions that teach polytheism.
Muhammad was born in 570 into the Quraysh tribe that had the responsibility of maintaining the Ka’bah (a stone used in pagan rituals in Mecca). His father died almost six months before he was born, and his mother died when he was six years old. So, his grandfather reared him until he died when Muhammad was eight. Finally, his uncle became his custodian. During his teen years, he followed his uncle on trips to Syria to trade goods. Overall, Muhammad lived a normal life, except that he never participated in the pagan rituals in Mecca.
After his years of traveling with his uncle, Muhammad became a merchant. As a young man, Muhammad obtained the patronage of Khadija. At age 25, he married this wealthy widow merchant who was 15 years his senior. He led her trade caravans all over the Arabian Peninsula and as far away as Damascus. They had five children together.
When he was 40 years of age, Muhammad had a vision. Sometimes he would retire to a cave on Mount Hira (outside Mecca) for relaxation. In 610, he said he received a vision from the angel Gabriel during the month of Ramadan. At first, he wondered about its source, but his wife Khadijah (and others) believed he was a prophet. After his first revelation, Muhammad did not receive another for nearly three years. During that time, he became despondent and doubted whether Allah was pleased with his conduct.
He did begin to have additional revelations until his death, and these messages were later compiled and recorded in the Qur’an. Over time, some of the revelations of Muhammad became more unusual. He claimed to speak to the dead and even prayed for the dead at one cemetery. He also received revelation from both Allah and Satan. Perhaps the most famous of these are the so-called “Satanic Verses.”
Muhammad began preaching against the greed, economic oppression, and idolatry of his time. He also preached against the polytheism of the Arab tribes and called on the many factions of the Arab peoples to unite under the worship of Allah. Muhammad proclaimed to those in Mecca that they were worshipping false gods and idols. This preaching was not only controversial, but it began to affect the commercial interests of those who profited from the worship at the Ka’bah in Mecca. Even his own tribe turned against him. He and his followers came under persecution.
Although some joined Muhammad, most of the residents either ignored him or criticized him. His message was not well received even by his Quraysh brethren in Mecca. It is at that point that Muhammad’s rage surfaced. When even his uncle, Abu Lahab, rejected his message, Muhammad cursed him and his wife in violent language: “May the hands of Abu Lahab perish! May he himself perish! Nothing shall his wealth and gains avail him. He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with faggots, shall have a rope of fiber around her neck!” (Sura 111:1-5).
In 620, Muhammad claimed that he experienced a night journey with the angel Gabriel that took him from Mecca to a far land (later Muslims said this was Jerusalem – the location which today is known as the Dome of the Rock). He also said he traveled to both heaven and hell and spoke with previous prophets such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. He led them in prayer and then returned to Mecca.
His wife and uncle died in 619, and he married another woman. Tensions were rising, and even his own tribe refused to protect him. Various threats were made against his life. Some of his followers actually fled to a nearby Christian king for protection.
The leaders in Mecca were growing even more concerned about the influence of Muhammad and his followers. So, they devised a plan to assassinate Muhammad in order to rid their city of him and Muslim followers. Muhammad and his small Muslim community eventually fled from Mecca in 622 to Medina (a small agricultural oasis to the north of Mecca) where a band of tribal warriors accepted his role as prophet. This flight (known as the Hijra) marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. This is why Muslim dates have the designation AH (After Hijra).
While in Medina, Muhammad began to organize various aspects of Islam. He proposed that the Muslim holy day would be on Friday so that it would not conflict with the Jewish Sabbath. Originally, Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem, but that was later changed to Mecca. He also adopted Abraham as the patriarch of the Muslim faith but considered him the father of the Arabs through Ishmael.
Muhammad also established what could be considered the foundational document of Islam. It declared that the community of Muslim believers as the umma and set forth the strictures under which they would live. This brotherhood of believers replaced the brotherhood of the tribes. They were to be governed by the Muslim theocracy in which all institutions were subservient to the religion.
During this time, he built a mosque in Medina and established the pillars of Islam that exist even to this day. These include the confession, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and a pilgrimage.
Muhammad also divided the world into two spheres: dar al-Islam (the house of submission – Islam) and dar al-Harb (the house of war). The first is government by Islamic law and tradition. The second is outside Muslim rule.
While they were in Medina, Muhammad and his fellow Muslims raided caravans and engaged in a number of battles with his growing army of followers. Although most of these battles were with those from Mecca who rejected his teaching, some were against the Jews. In one particular battle with the last Jewish tribe in Medina, he and his followers killed 600-800 Jewish men and took the wives and children as booty.
Because he was raiding caravans from Mecca, relations between Mecca and Muhammad grew worse. After Muhammad led a raid on a Meccan caravan in 624, the leaders in Mecca decided to send an army to Medina to defeat Muhammad and his followers.
This was a major turning point in the life of Muhammad in what is now called the battle of Badr. Even though they were outnumbered three-to-one, his Muslim troops were able to defeat the Quraysh. This appeared to be a divine authentication of the blessing of Allah on the teaching of Muhammad. He also attributed the victory to Allah sending angels. He also said that similar help would come to Muslims who remained faithful to Allah.
Allah had helped you at Badr, when ye were a contemptible little force; then fear Allah: thus, may you show your gratitude. Remember thou saidst to the Faithful: ‘Is it not enough for you that Allah should help you with three thousand angels specially sent down?’ Yes, if ye remain firm, and act aright, even if the enemy should rush here on you in hot haste, your Lord would help you with five thousand angels making a terrific onslaught (Sura 3:123-125).
The victory at Badr also posed a problem: the spoils of war. One of the chapters of the Qur’an actually spells out the distribution of this booty: “And know that whatever ye take as spoils of war, lo! a fifth thereof is for Allah, and for the messenger and for the kinsman (who hath need) and orphans and the needy and the wayfarer, if ye believe in Allah and that which We revealed unto Our slave on the Day of Discrimination, that day when the two armies met” (Sura 8:41).
By 628, the Muslim army was so strong that Muhammad decided to return to Mecca as a pilgrim. Even though he was not allowed to finish his pilgrimage, he did sign a treaty that would allow Muslims to make a pilgrimage to Mecca the next year.
In 630, Muhammad assembled an army of 10,000 men and returned to Mecca and took the city without much bloodshed. Most of the Meccans converted to Islam, and others saw the wisdom of not resisting this new powerful religious and military leader. Four people were executed, one a woman who wrote satirical lyrics about Muhammad. He demanded a pledge of allegiance from the citizens of Mecca to him and his religion. Muhammad also destroyed the idols in the shrine in Mecca (known as the Ka’bah) and instituted the practices of Islam in the holy city of Mecca.
Muhammad now had control of both Medina and Mecca, which was the economic and religious center of the Arabian Peninsula. He then decided to return to Medina, a city that came to be known as the “City of the Prophet.” And he continued to expand his sphere of political and religious influence in the Arabian Peninsula for the next two years. He was at the pinnacle of his power, and then he died in 632. But rather than that being the end of Islam, it began an incredible expansion both to the east to Persia and to the west through Northern Africa and into Spain.
When Muhammad died, the remaining Muslims faced a challenge. Who would lead them? Should they choose one person to lead them or separate into many communities? Who would be their leader and spokesman?
The Muslim leaders picked Abu Bakr (Muhammad’s father-in-law and early supporter). He was chosen to assume the role of caliph or successor to Muhammad. However, many who submitted to Muhammad refused to submit to the leadership of Abu Bakr. Several tribes wanted political independence; some sought to break religiously as well. The result was what has come to be known as the Apostasy wars. After two years of fighting to put down both religious and political threats, Abu Bakr extended his control to include the entire Arabian Peninsula. Islam was now in a position to extend its influence beyond Arabia with a large standing army of believers.
The leaders that emerged from this period were known as caliphs. The first four caliphs were companions of Muhammad. During this same period, Muslim armies began to conquer the Persian Empire to the east and began to take control of the North African and Syrian territories of the Byzantine Empire. In a fairly short period of time, Islam was transformed from a religion of a small city-state in the Arabian Peninsula into a major world religion that covered the land from northwest Africa to central Asia.
The third caliph (whose name was Uthman and was responsible for collecting the variant versions of the Qur’an) was murdered by troops who mutinied over matters of pay and privileges. These troops and others in Medina declared the new caliph to be Ali, (who was a cousin of Muhammad who was an early convert and also the husband of Muhammad’s daughter).
This lead to the split between two major groups in Islam: Sunni and Shi’ite. The Shi’ite Muslim tradition believes that Muhammad designated Ali as his successor. Ali faced a major military threat from other Muslims and fought a battle and later agreed to arbitration. When he was killed in 661, most Muslims accepted the leadership of one of the caliphs. But the division between two sects of Islam was now established. Even during these civil wars, the world of Islam continued to expand and dominate the region. In many ways, this new Muslim state became the successor to the empires of Rome and Persia. The Muslim empire spanned from Spain in the west to India in the east. In the centuries that followed, Islam penetrated deeper into Africa and Asia, extending as far as the Philippines.
This time period was the beginning of the golden age of Islam, which produced some of the world’s finest philosophers and mathematicians. Baghdad, for example, had a library unmatched by anything else in the world and housed writings from Plato and Aristotle.
Also during this time, conflict between Islam and Christianity erupted. In 691, the Dome of the Rock Mosque was erected in Jerusalem. In 715 the Great Mosque was built in Damascus. So, by 1095, a series of Crusades were begun in an effort to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims.
By the tenth century, the power of the caliphs was reduced as power shifted to the military commanders, who frequently took the title of sultan (meaning authority). Much of this military leadership was Turkish.
From the tenth to the sixteenth century, the size of the Muslim world nearly doubled. This expansion was not so much due to the military conquering lands as it was due to traveling merchants and itinerant preachers. Teachers of a devotional life also developed during this time. This would include the sect of Islam known as Sufism.
From the sixteenth century onward, Islam began to be affected by the influence of European powers. Eventually, European countries colonized much of the Muslim world. This situation remained relatively unchanged until the end of WWI. Much of the map of the Middle East was drawn up, and later many of the Muslim countries gained political independence. The discovery and development of the vast oil reserves in many Muslim lands have also brought economic independence.
Today Islam is the second largest religion in the world with approximately 1.6 billion adherents worldwide. It is also one of the fastest growing religions in the world. The Islam religion can be found around the globe. Islam is no longer just a religion of the Middle East. There are actually more Muslims in Asia (60 percent) than in the Arab world (22 percent) and sub-Saharan Africa (12 percent). The country with the most Muslims today is not an Arab country but Indonesia in Southeast Asia.