Like Judaism and Christianity, the religion of Islam was birthed and grew up on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, Islam is terribly misunderstood in the western world.
In less than two centuries Islam went from, simply, not existing to becoming both the religious and political organising principal of one of the largest empires that the world has ever known.
Birth of a Religion
The story of Islam begins near the beginning of the seventh century in 610 when the angel Gabriel appeared to an Arabic caravan trader in his early forties named Muhammad ibn ʿAbdullāh. The angel recited the words of god to this merchant who, in turn, began to preach them publically, proclaiming that “God is One” (Tawhid). Muhammad also claimed that he was a prophet sent to present and confirm the monotheistic teachings preached previously by God’s other prophets, including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.
Before we go any further though there are several things to acknowledge about the pre-Islamic world that Islam entered into:
- Muhammad’s society was intensely tribal and he was born in the city of Mecca into the Quraysh tribe. These tribal ties and loyalties were extremely important to the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula.
- Arabia had never come under the control of either the Roman or Byzantine Empires and instead remained fiercely independent. This lack of imperial overlordship allowed the natives to happily live their lives within these tribes and cities whilst also facilitating a religious melting pot in the region of Arabia.
- Most tribal Arabs worshipped gods similar to the pantheon of Mesopotamian gods and by the time of Muhammad many cult statues of various gods had been collected in his hometown of Mecca and housed in a temple like structure known as the Kaaba. This Kaaba acted as a Holy magnet for Bedouin tribesmen of the area who would make a pilgrimage to Mecca and worship at the Kaaba once a year.
- In addition to these older gods of polytheistic religions the Arabian Peninsula was also home to monotheistic religions like Abrahamic Judaism and Christianity as well as the Persian Zoroastruism. Muhammad and his contemporaries would have been aware of these religions and so the idea of monotheism would not have been as surprising to Muhammad as it would have been to say Abraham.
- Finally, the northern part of Arabia was sandwiched between the two great empires of the age, the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanian Empire, who were in a state of near constant warfare.
At its core Islam is what we could describe as a radical reforming religion: just as Moses and Jesus sought to restore Abrahamic monotheism after what they perceived as the people straying, so too did Muhammad. Muslims believe that God sent Muhammad as the final prophet to bring the people back to the one true religion which involves the worship of and submission to a single and all powerful god.
Islam’s Holy Book, the Qur’an, acknowledges that there were other prophets before Muhammad but it is very different from the Hebrew and Christian Holy Scriptures. For one thing, it is far less narrative and instead focuses on the revelations provided to Muhammad by God. Therefore, the Qur’an is not written from the point of view of people but rather seen as the written record of the actual word of God.
The Qur’an is a broad ranging text but it continuously returns to a couple of important themes. Firstly, is the strict adherence to monotheism and submission to the one true god. The second matter that the Qur’an deems significant enough to return to is for the reader to take care of the less fortunate. The Qur’an says that the good person:
“spends his substance – however much he himself may cherish – it – upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage.” Qur’an 2:177
The revelations found in Muhammad’s teachings radically increased the rights of women and orphans, which is one of the reasons that the Quraysh tribal leaders were not terribly fond of him and his disciples.
There are five basic acts considered obligatory, at least by Sunni Muslims, and these are known as the Five Pillars of Islam and every Muslim should strive to live his or her live by these tenets:
- Shahada – The profession of faith – There are two Shahadas: “There is no god but God” & “Muhammad is the messenger of God”.
- Salat – Ritual prayer five times a day. The prayers are performed at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, and night.
- Zakat – Alms giving – Muslims are expected to deduct a certain amount of their income to support the Islamic community, and it is usually about 2.5% of an individual’s income.
- Sawm – Month-long fast during the month of Ramadan during which Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. The reason for fasting during Ramadan is to remind Muslims that all individuals are similarly needy upon the assistance of Allah and that there are less fortunate individuals who are in need of their assistance.
- Hajj – Pilgrimage to Mecca which Muslims should attempt to fulfil at least once in their life. This ritual consists of making the journey to Mecca wearing only 2 white sheets so that all of the pilgrims are identical and there is no class distinction amongst them.
There is more to understanding Islam than just learning the Qur’an. There are also supplementary sacred texts, chief amongst which is the Hadith, a collection of sayings and stories about the prophet Muhammad. Much like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has a body of law known as Sharia Law. Although in the west we tend to think of Sharia Law as a single set of laws that all Muslims must follow, this is not the case. There are numerous competing ideas about Sharia, just as there is within any other legal traditions (think of lawyers who put forth their arguments to judges).
The people who embraced these ideas of Muhammad as the messenger of God, obeyed Sharia Law and followed the Five Pillars of Islam were called Muslims because they submitted to the will of God and became part of the Ummah, the community of believers. Being part of the Ummah trumped all other allegiances, including loyalties to the tribe. This concept got Muhammad into trouble with his tribal leaders and brings us full circle back to the historical Muhammad and the Islamic movement.
The Prophet’s New Nation
As Muhamad’s following in the city of Mecca grew, the Ummah began to arouse the suspicions of the most powerful tribe in the city: Muhammad’s own, Quraysh. It made little difference to the leaders that Muhammad was born into the tribe because he kept preaching about how there was only one true god which was really bad news for the Quraysh as they organised and managed the pilgrimage business in Mecca. Their whole business was facilitating polytheistic pilgrimage, and business was good. If all those gods were false, as one of their own kinsmen was proclaiming, then it would be an economic disaster for the tribe and the city of Mecca as a whole.
And so, the leaders of the Quraysh decided to force Muhammad and his band of followers from the city. In June 622, after being warned of a plot to assassinate their leader, the small band of Ummah, headed by Muhammad, travelled 320 km (200 miles) north to the city of Yathrib, later renamed Medina, and this journey, known as the Hegira is regarded as so important to the Islamic story that it marks Year 0 in the Islamic Calendar.
Whilst in Medina, Muhammad severed the religious ties of his new religion to those of Judaism, turning the focus of prayer away from Jerusalem and towards the wistful prophet’s home city of Mecca. Additionally, Muhammad widened the Islamic community and united the Medinan tribes under the Constitution of Medina which declared them as one nation separate from all peoples.
Whilst in Medina the Islamic community began to take a different form and began to look and operate more like a micro empire than a church, partly due to the framework of the Constitution of Medina which solidified Muhammad’s position as the absolute political leader. From almost the very beginning the prophet had a country to run and in addition to being an important prophet, it also turned out that Muhammad was a competent general and in 630 the Islamic community took back Mecca from the Quraysh. The Islamic army quickly destroyed the idols housed in the Kaaba and soon Islam became as powerful a political force in the region as it was a religious one. Because the political and religious traditions of Islam were shaped at the same time and co-existed from the beginning there is no separate tradition of civic and religious law like its counterparts in Judaism and Christianity.
The Islamic Schism
Soon after the conquest of his home city in 630, Muhammad died in 632. When he died there was no religious vacuum left behind as he was the final prophet and the revelations found in the Qur’an would continue to guide the Ummah throughout their lives. That being said, the community was in need of a new political leader: a Caliph. The first Caliph was Muhammad’s companion and father-in-law Abu Bakr, but this was quite a contentious appointment as many people would have preferred to have seen Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, lead the community. Although Ali would go on to lead the community as the fourth Caliph, the initial disagreement between the supporters of Abu Bakr and Ali began the divide between the two major sects of the religion: Sunni and Shia. Even to this day, Sunni Muslims believe that Abu Bakr was rightly elected as the first Caliph whilst Shia Muslims believe that it should have been Ali. This centuries old disagreement still stirs enough animosity to result in major and often bloody conflict within the Islamic world.
To the Sunni, the first four Caliphs: Abu Bakr; Umar; Uthman; and Ali are known as the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” and many of the Islamic conservative movements of today are focused on restoring the Islamic world to the “glory days” of the first, or Rashidun, Caliphate. Those who want to see a return to the Caliphate are most likely viewing it through rose tinted glasses as like most nostalgic “glory days” throughout history, the days of the Rashidun Caliphate were not really all that unequivocally glorious.
Arguably they were not all that bad either though. After Muhammad’s death Abu Bakr stabilised the Ummah and began the process of recording the Qur’an in writing. He also began the military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire in the northwest and the Sassanian Empire in the northeast. These military campaigns kicked off a trend of armed conquest that allowed the Islamic Empire to expand from the Arabian Peninsula westwards across North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula to the Pyrenees and eastwards across historic Persia to the Himalayas in under 120 years.
Abu Bakr did not reign long, however, and in 634 after only two years of leading the Ummah he fell ill and never recovered. Believing that he should nominate his successor so that the issue should not be a cause of dissension among the Muslims after his death he appointed Umar as his successor. As it turned out, Umar was a good choice as he was both an unusually fantastic general as well as a superb administrator. After a ten year tenure as Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate Umar was assassinated in 644 leading to the Caliphate of Uthman who continued his predecessors’ tradition of conquering… and also assassination.
Now, in 656, twenty-four years after his supporters believed he should have been elevated to Caliph, Ali finally became the leader of the Ummah. However, his ascension was very controversial and led to civil war (Fitna) and the overthrow of the Rashidun Caliphate and the emergence of Uthman’s tribe, the Umayyad, as the dynasty which would rule over the ever-expanding Islamic Empire for nearly a century.
It is quite common to hear that Islam spread by the sword in the early years, and whilst this is partly true, it must also be noted that many people embraced Islam without the threat of military force. In fact, the Qur’an specifically says that the religion must not be an act of compulsion. There is one undeniable fact about the early Islamic Empire and warfare though and that is that it was really good at winning. Seeing as it was situated between two massively wealthy empires in the Byzantine and Sassanian there was plenty to fight for.
The first to fall was the Sasanian Empire in 651, the final non-Muslim successor to the Persian Empires whose history stretched back to 550 BCE with Cyrus the Great. The Persians were relatively easy to conquer as they had been worn down by three centuries of warring the Byzantine Empire and the populace and armies were struck by plague in the final years. The Byzantines faired longer than their Persian counterparts but in the early days, the Muslims were able to pry away some valuable territory like Egypt and the Holy Lands from the Byzantine Empire. The acquisition of Egypt allowed the Islamic Empire to push further west across North Africa and up through Spain where various Muslim dynasties entrenched themselves until finally being ejected in 1492.
As great as they were at war, it is still very tempting to chalk up Islamic Arabic success as the “Will of God”. Certainly, much of the people that the Caliphate conquered felt this way. After all, wars in that part of the world were about so much more than armies fighting one another; they also pitted their respective deities against one another too. So whilst the Islamic Empire did not require conquered subjects to convert to Islam, the striking successes convinced much of the people that this Allah being the one true God may be genuine. Perhaps the prime example of this was the Qurayshi leader, Abu Sufyan, adopting Islam after the Conquest of Mecca when being asked by Muhammad if he conceded that the Meccan gods had proved powerless and that there was indeed “no god but God”, the first part of the Islamic confession of faith. Abu Sufyan later played a supporting role in the Muslim army at the decisive Battle of Yarmouk against the Byzantines and one of his sons, Muawiyah, later established the Umayyad Caliphate in 661 after the death of Ali and the overthrow of the Rashidun Caliphate.
Islam’s Cultural Impact
So, in a period of time that was, historically speaking, both fairly recent and remarkably short a small group of people from an area of the world with little natural resources managed to create one of the great empires of the world as well as one of the great religions. In a strange twist, this rapid expansion and stunning success may be the very reason why people of western European descent remain largely ignorant of this period of history; it was not their glory days.
Not only were the Muslims great conquerors, they also spawned an explosion of trade and learning that lasted hundreds of years. They also saved many of the classic texts that formed the basis of so-called Western Civilisation at a time when Europe was ignoring them and paved the way for the Renaissance which lifted Europe from the Middle Ages.
While it is important to remember that much of the world between Spain and the Indus River was not Arabised, most of it was so comprehensively Islamised that these days it is impossible to think of the geographical region we call the Middle-East without thinking of it as Islamic. It is testament to the dominance of the religion that has its roots in Arabia that today in Egypt millions of people, five times a day, turn away from the ancient pyramids and towards the Prophet’s birthplace of Mecca. Egypt: home to one of the longest, continuous cultures on the planet is now the largest Arabic-speaking country in the world.
The Rest is History
Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:
- The Wise Man’s Journey
- The Agricultural Revolution
- Early Settlement
- The Indus Valley Civilisation
- Ancient Egypt
- West Vs East
- Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
- Ancient China
- Alexander…the Great?
- The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
- The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
- The Covenant & the Messiah
- Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire