Islam. There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger

Islam emerged out of the Arabian Peninsula (modern-day Saudi Arabia) in the seventh century. Prior to this, Arabian tribal peoples had practiced a wide variety of pagan beliefs, living in a time Muslims called jahiliyya or ignorance.

The Ka’aba in Mecca was one of the early sites of religious pilgrimage for Arabian tribes and the merchants of Mecca had long made lucrative livings off the trade generated by the pilgrims. The Ka’aba became the holiest site in the Muslim world and the center for the annual pilgrimage or hajj to Mecca.

Although Muslims accept the validity of all of the Old and New Testament prophets, including Jesus, they believe the prophet Muhammad is the last and the greatest of the prophets. As strict monotheists Muslims do not accept the resurrection of Jesus because that would have made him divine and for Muslims God or Allah is indivisible. However Islam, as the third major monotheistic religion, forms part of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition.

The Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, contains the words of Allah as revealed to the prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an places great emphasis on knowledge and the first word in the Qur'an is Iqra or “read.” The Hadith and Sunna, traditions and sayings of the Prophet, also provide guidance for proper behavior and practice.

Muslims follow the Five Pillars of belief and practice and are called to prayer five times a day by the muezzin from the minaret, a tall tower, attached to a mosque. The mosque serves not only as a place of worship but often as a center for social gatherings and as a school.

On Friday, the Muslim holy day, the imam delivers a sermon to the faithful. Unlike Christianity, orthodox Sunni Islam does not have an established clergy. Any devout believer can serve as an imam. However, the mullahs form an established, hierarchical clerical caste in Shi’a Islam. The community of believers is known as the umma; religious scholars or ulema continually provide interpretations and reinterpretations of religious texts and practice.

As with Judaism and Christianity, Islam began as a patriarchal society. However Islamic law improved the lot of women, who were granted extensive legal and property rights. Polygamy was permitted as with most of the world at the time. A Muslim male could have four wives at one time but he must treat each equally in terms of lifestyle and the time spent with her. Thus only the wealthy could usually afford more than one wife.

As the number of Muslim converts grew under Muhammad’s charismatic leadership, the established wealthy merchants in Mecca began to persecute the new believers. Led by Muhammad the Muslims migrated (or made a Hijra) from Mecca for Medina in 622. In Medina the Muslims had extensive interactions with three Jewish tribes; although the prophet Muhammad had fairly cordial relations with some of these tribes he failed to convert them.

map of islamic caliphate
map of islamic caliphate

Some of these tribes also openly sided with the rival Meccans and even joined forces with them in military battles. Consequently the Jewish tribes were either expelled from Medina or killed. Muhammad created a new religious and political society heavily influenced by tribal practices in Medina.

In 624 the Meccans were defeated at the Battle of Badr but they retaliated by winning the Battle of Uhud in 625. In a third confrontation, Muhammad’s strategy of building a large ditch to stop the Meccan cavalry helped the Muslims to defeat the Meccans at the Battle of the Trench in 627.

Muhammad then negotiated a treaty between two cities, but after the Meccans violated the settlement, Muhammad led over 1,000 Muslim forces against the city. He took Mecca without bloodshed or forced conversions in 630. Muhammad returned to Mecca as the unquestioned leader of a growing and dynamic new community.

Within two years Muslim campaigns had incorporated much of the Arabian Peninsula and had taken several Byzantine centers near the Gulf of Aqaba, north of Medina. Recognizing the growing power of the Muslims, other Arabian tribes soon sent envoys to negotiate alliances or conversions with Muhammad at Mecca. Muslims also moved into Yemen and along the Persian Gulf in the east.

In 632 Muhammad died and since he had left no chosen successor the community gathered to select by consensus a new leader or caliph to represent the Muslims. Under the next four “righteous” caliphs, the Muslims embarked on one of the most dynamic expansions in human history. Within 100 years the Islamic/Arab empire expanded from the banks of the Indus River in the east to northern Africa and Spain in the west.

Much of the spread of Islam in Asia and Africa occurred not through warfare but trade. The Muslim annual pilgrimage to Mecca was another extremely effective way for the vast community of believers to establish trade and business relationships with one another and to exchange ideas and new technologies.

Although religious tolerance was practically unknown at the time, Islam enjoined its believers to treat people of the book (Jews, Christians, and usually Zoroastrians) kindly and not to force conversions unless they took up arms against the Muslims. As an open, universal religion that stresses the equality of all believers, Islam continues to hold great appeal and in the 21st century remains one of the world’s fastest growing religions.