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Islam Beginnings

Islam Beginnings

Islam is the world’s second largest religion, with about 1.6 billion followers in 2010 (more than 20 percent of the earth’s population). Including biological growth, it is also the globe’s fastest-growing, and is the majority religion in forty-nine countries. Contemporary politics and the issue of terrorism have thrust Islam into the worldwide spotlight as never before.

Islam Beginnings
Islam Beginnings

Islam is an Arabic word meaning “submission,” and the religion’s central theme is submission to the will of God. So a Muslim is one who submits to God’s will, which is revealed in the Qur’an, the Islamic holy book (Qur’an, an Arabic word meaning “recite,” is often transliterated Koran in English texts). Although the Arabic language and culture are central to Islam, only 25 percent of the world’s Muslims are ethnically Arab, and the four countries with the largest Muslim populations (Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India) are all outside the Middle East.

Some older books on history and religion refer to this faith as Mohammedanism. This is inaccurate and offensive to Muslims, as they do not worship Muhammad. Although they revere him greatly and follow his example in many ways, they insist he was just a man. To deify him, they say, is contrary to Muhammad’s own teaching.

Islam teaches that God has sent a long line of prophets to reveal his will to humans, and many Muslims would say Islam has existed since Adam’s creation. However, to understand Islam today, we need to look at sixth-century Arabia and a man named Muhammad, considered Islam’s final and greatest prophet (in Muslim writings, his or any prophet’s name usually is followed by pbuh, meaning, “peace be upon him”; variations in English spellings of Muhammad are attempts to approximate the sounds of the Arabic letters).


Islam Beginnings
Islam Beginnings

Muhammad was born about AD 570, in Mecca, both a trade center and pilgrimage site even before Islam. As a young man, he frequently went outside the city to meditate in nearby caves. On one occasion, a powerful supernatural being appeared and told Muhammad to recite the message he was given.

Frightened and in shock, Muhammad related this event to his relatives and close friends. He initially believed the supernatural being was Satan, but his friends convinced him otherwise and encouraged him to return to the cave. This being, claiming to be the angel Gabriel, appeared to Muhammad many times over a period of several years, each time giving him more of the message that eventually developed into the Qur’an.

Many parts of the Qur’an bear striking resemblance to portions of the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity. Because Mecca was a center for trade, people of many faiths passed through it; Muhammad, engaged in managing camel caravans, undoubtedly encountered some of these.

In addition, a sizeable number of Jewish communities were in Arabia at the time. But Muslims insist this had no influence on Muhammad and that the Qur’an was dictated to him directly—any similarities are because the other religions are like Islam rather than the other way around. Further, Muhammad was illiterate, so while he may have talked with followers of monotheistic religions, he did not read from any of their scriptures.

The religion of pre-Islamic Arabia was polytheistic and idol-worshiping. By contrast, the message given to Muhammad was that there is only one God, who could not be represented by any image. While some believed his reports, most citizens of Mecca resented and opposed his message. Persecution and threats against his life increased until, in 622, he and his followers escaped and went 250 miles north to the city of Yathrib (later renamed Medina). Muslims call this event the Hijra (migration, or escape), and rather than Muhammad’s birth, this event marks the first year of the Muslim calendar.

In Medina, Muhammad organized his growing number of followers and continued to teach. By 630, the Muslims had become powerful enough to conquer Mecca, destroy the idols at the center of the Meccan religion, and establish Islam as the Arabian Peninsula’s primary religion. Muhammad died shortly afterward (632), yet his followers quickly spread the faith westward. Even though this often coincided with military conquests by Arab armies, forced conversions were not the norm, at least among Jews and Christians, whom Islam considers people of the Book.

Political and spiritual factors in the Byzantine Empire also contributed to Islam’s rapid conversion rate among the conquered, non-Arab peoples of western Asia and North Africa. After conquering Spain, the Muslim advance was decisively halted at the Battle of Tours (732), in southern France, though it was many years before Muslims were expelled from Spain and Portugal.

To the east, Islam spread into central Asia, northern India, East Africa, and eventually to present-day Indonesia. While military conquest was a factor, as it was in the West, trade was also a significant means by which the message was propagated. In northern India, the Muslims ruled but did not convert the Hindu majority.

In East Africa, where Arab settlements had existed since pre-Islamic times and the trade included slaves, little effort was made at converting the local people, since enslaving fellow Muslims was generally forbidden. This changed early in the 1800s, when Great Britain outlawed the slave trade throughout its empire and British naval vessels began to seize Arab slave ships in the Indian Ocean.

After nearly two centuries of incredibly rapid expansion, the spread of Islam slowed until the twentieth century. In the post-colonial era, it again began spreading. Globalization and migration have made a truly worldwide religion of Islam. Like Christianity, it believes it is a universal faith all people should accept, and it has organizations that seek to propagate it in new places. Today, there is probably no nation in the world without the presence of Islam.

Islam Beginnings
Islam Beginnings

An Extra Minute

Islamic beliefs and practices are based on the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the Hadith. The Qur’an is held to be sacred scripture, dictated to Muhammad by Gabriel. Many questions about faith and practice arose after Muhammad’s death, so Muslims asked those who had known the prophet and were still alive what he said or did in various situations. These were eventually written down and collected into the Sunna (or Sunnah) meaning “Traditions.” This multi-volume collection is sometimes referred to as the Hadith (Sayings), as it includes what Muhammad said. Although not considered a holy book like the Qur’an, in daily life, the Sunna is used more frequently.

Morgan, G.R. (2012) Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, pp. 66–69.

Islam Beginnings

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