BISMA'LLAH AR-RA'CHMAN WA' AR-RA'CHIM
Although Islam is a sister religion of Christianity and Judaism,
Christians are generally ignorant and contemptuous of its origins and
beliefs. One might note that Muslims hold education and learning in high
esteem. Like the Jewish faith, Islam encourages the faithful to learn to
read and instructors in Islamic lands customarily begin each lecture with
the bismallah, an invocation that appears at the beginning of these
And let's not say "Mohammedanism."
Here are some useful distinctions
Muhammad: the prophet of Islam
Islam: "the yoke": the religion revealed to Muhammad
Muslim: a follower of Islam
Arabic: usually refers to the Arabic language. Most Muslims and
not Arabs, although most Arabs are Muslims.
1. Mecca in 570 A.D..
A: It was an agricultural center of the Arabian periphery. It was ruled by the
heads of the major clans of the city's population.
B: It was the center of Bedouin worship. The nomadic peoples of the
interior brought the physical embodiments of their gods to be placed in
the building in the center of Mecca called the Ka'aba for
safe-keeping. Individuals went their on pilgrimage (hadj)
and entire clans went there for collective worship during the sacred
truce of Ramadan. Thus Mecca was a center of all Arabia,
and obtained considerable wealth from its visitors.
C: Mecca was also a major caravan center. The Persian-Byzantine wars had
blocked the overland route of the silk and spice road to India and China,
and pirates and bandits blocked the Red Sea to regular commerce. Goods
came by sea from India, landed at Aden (in Yemen) where they were joined
by trade goods from the interior of Africa, and carried in caravans up the
western coast of Arabia -- through Mecca and Medina to Petra in Palestine,
where the route split. The northern fork went to Damascus and the southern
An observation: although largely a tribal society of polytheists, the
inhabitants of Mecca lived in one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the
time and were exposed to a wide range of ideas. Their culture was oral,
2. Muhammad (570-632)
Born to a poor branch of the major clan of the Khoraish, and
orphaned at an early age, Muhammad was reared by his uncle, who got him a
job with a caravan company. He eventually married Khadija,
owner of the company, and settled down to a dignified life of study --
although he could not read -- contemplation, and poetry. He began to
contemplate religion, and would retire to a cave outside Mecca to meditate
upon the universe. A vision of the angel Gabriel appeared to him, telling
him that he had a mission from god. God had written a book -- the
Qu'ran -- at the beginning of time that contained all
wisdom. Gabriel would tell him from time to time a portion of that book
and he would reveal it to the people. The first message was THERE IS
NO GOD BUT GOD, AND MUHAMMAD IS THE PROPHET OF GOD.
Muhammad slowly gathered a group of followers. One of my professors once
remarked that the most convincing evidence that could be adduced in
support of the claim that Muhammad was inspired by God was the fact that
he convinced his wife, Khadija, that he was God's holy and final prophet.
Muhammad's activities aroused the anger of the leaders of Mecca since he
insisted on the existence of only one god and they profited greatly from
the pilgrims who came to Mecca to worship their many idols. He was
threatened with death and his own kindred agreed that they would not
protect him or seek vengeance if he were killed.
Under such circumstances, Mecca was a dangerous place to be. In 622, he
and his followers fled north to the caravan city of Medina, to which he
had been invited as chief and judge to mediate between the Jews,
Christians, and idolaters who inhabited the town. Their escape from Mecca
was the hijra (the flight), regarded by Muslims as the
beginning of Islam and the first year of the Muslim calendar.
Muhammad soon became master of Medina, partly by converting some of the
inhabitants of the city and partly by expelling those residents who
refused to accept the revelations he offered them. He then began to wage
war against the inhabitants of Mecca. Since Mecca was generally regarded
by the Arabs as the religious center of the land, Muhammad knew that his
preachings would never be widely accepted until he could preach from the
holy places of Mecca. After a long struggle, the Meccans finally yielded
and accepted Islam. Muhammad then destroyed all of the idols kept there
and honored the city as the center of the faith. He then revealed the
obligations of Islam: the Pillars of the Faith. These were
1) the Profession the public statement of faith that there
is but one God and that Muhammad is His prophet, 2) daily prayer, 3) the
obligation of giving alms to widows, orphans, the poor, and needy, 4) to
try to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one's life, and 5) to
keep the fast of the month of Ramadan. There are three
additional duties: 1) to wage holy way (jihad) against those
who persecute the faithful, 2) to observe some dietary restrictions, such
as not eating pork or drinking alcoholic beverages to excess (which most
Muslims have converted into an absolute prohibition), and 3) trying to
learn to read the Qu'ran in the Arabic language in which Muhammad spoke it
and in which followers wrote down his words.
When Muhammad died in 632, many of his followers were panicked although he
had prepared them for this eventuality in his last
sermon His chief disciples brought order, however, and in time created
an institutionalized faith, although without an organized priesthood or
connection between church and state. There is a legend that, when Muhammad
died, Abu Bakr, chief of his followers, went to the window of the room in
which his body lay to address the crowd that had gathered around the
house. His words were (more or less) "Those of you who worshipped
Muhammad, know that Muhammad is dead. Those of you who worship God, know
that God is eternal>"
A fundamental feature of this institutionalization was the compilation of
the Qu'ran. We have noted that Muhammad himself was illiterate, but
some of his close followers were not. When Muhammad repeated a revelation,
there was usually someone near to write down his words. When it came time
to compile all these separate documents, no one wanted to claim the
editorial authority necessary to arrange them in chronological or topical
order. They instead adopted the simple and non-committal principle of
arranging them according to length, with the shortest coming first. Thus
the Qu'ran consists of a number of revelations originally spoken by
Muhammad and called suras. There are also a number of "traditions"
(hadith) that some Muslims are willing to accept as almost
as authoritative as the Qu'ran. The hadith are believed to
be revelations given by Muhammad that were not written down but which have
been passed down by word of mouth from the person who actually heard them
spoken. Since Muslims believe that the Qu'ran contains all of the
knowledge needed for salvation, Islamic law is based upon the suras
with the addition of hadith that seem valid and appropriate to the
3. The Expansion of Islam
The Mediterranean World in 732
By 732, Islam had spread from Spain to Sumatra, and Muslim ships dominated
by the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. The reasons for this rapid
expansion were numerous.
a. The Persian and Byzantine empires were exhausted and could not resist
b. Many people in the lands of both the Byzantine and Persian empires
favored monotheism and found the Byzantine trinity and Persian dualism
distasteful. Islam was more to their liking, and they not only converted
to Islam, but helped to spread it further.
c. The Muslims swept away the burdensome taxation and top-heavy government
in those lands that accepted them.
d. Islam was simple to understand, and its observances were clear and
unequivocal. It did not call for asceticism and condemned excesses of all
e. Conversion was a simple and straightforward matter.
f. The Muslims practiced at least a limited religious toleration, and the
social and economic doctrines of Islam were far more humane than those of
the other peoples of the time. Islam was a liberal force. Religious
toleration in Islam consists of the recognition of the revelations given
by God to the Jews, whom the Muslims call "The People of the Law," and to
the Christians, who are called "The People of the Book." Muslims recognize
the Jewish prophets and the Christian Jesus as having been inspired by God
but accord the highest position to Muhammad as "The Seal of the Prophets,"
to whom God revealed his final and complete message. One should note,
however, that the Qu'ran does not suggest that those who worship
Idols should be tolerated. In fact, it states that they are either to be
converted to Islam or face war.
g. Arabic gave the peoples of Islam a common language, and the Qu'ran gave
them a common set of laws and values.
It is useful to think a moment about the nature of the Muslim
expansion. Some people regard it as amazing that the relatively small and
primitive - if one can use such a word in such circumstances - people as
the Arabs were able to defeat powerful empires and gain control of such
vast expanses of territory in so short a time. One must remember that we
are talking about the Muslim expansion, not Arab
conquests. The expansion of Islam was as much, or perhaps much more, a
matter of religious conversion than it was of military conquest.
4. The Effects of the Rise of Islam
The cultural unity of the Mediterranean, the creation and essence of the
Roman empire, disappeared as a Semitic - remember that many of the
inhabitants of the Byzantine and Persian empires were of Semitic stock and
that their native languages were of the Semitic family - and non-Christian
society established itself in the region. The trade routes connecting the
eastern and western branches of Christendom were weakened as the Muslims
seized control of the sea. The Carolingians turned away from the
Mediterranean, and Western Europe developed in a continental
semi-isolation. The region was freed from lingering influences of the
Byzantine empire and was left to develop on its own.
I make this point mainly because it is the picture presented in most
textbooks. The actual situation seems to have been considerably more
complex and even more difficult to explain. About 750, the West, under the
first Carolingians, turned their attention from Spain, Italy and the
Mediterranean and the center of their culture and political power moved to
northern France and Germany. At about the same time the Byzantine empire
ceased to rely so heavily on its Mediterranean fleets and to base its
power on land armies supported by great agricultural estates in Anatolia.
Under the Ummayyad dynasty of rulers, the Muslims had been active in the
Mediterranean Sea and the center of their political power was in Damascus
(in modern Syria). After a civil war had driven the Umayyads from power,
the new rulers, the Abbasids, moved their base of power to the new city of
Baghdad (in modern Iraq) in the lands of the old Persian empire. It would
appear that, for some reason, all three civilizations simultaneously
decided upon a policy of disengagement. It may well have been that the
unity of the Mediterranean was not broken by the incursion of the Muslims
except for a short while. For the next two hundred and fifty years, it
would seem that the civilizations of the region simply ignored the great
waterway that lay at their front doors.
In any event, it gives one something to think about.