The word Islam
comes from the
and peace through
submission to the
Muslim means “one
who submits to the
will of Allah.”
Today there are over 1.3 billion Muslims
throughout the world, concentrated in the
Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
Islam is the world’s second largest religion
after Christianity and it is the fastest
Arabia before Islam:
Before the advent of Islam, the Arab
civilization had little impact on neighboring
Roman, Persian, or Abyssinian empires.
Traditionally, the Arabs were two distinct
peoples: one, the nomadic Bedouins who
roamed the desert plains and were loosely
held together by tribal codes; and two,
the urban dwellers, whose tribal divisions
were mostly social, not geographic.
In pre-Islamic Arabia,
the life of the
romanticized by the
urban Arabs as pure,
They were considered
to embody all the
of the Arab peoples.
Children of Arab towns
were often temporarily
sent to live with the
nomads to learn
traditional Arab culture,
such as desert living,
camel rearing, goat
herding, and pure
Antar, a 6th century
Arabian poet and warrior.
Arabia was on the periphery of two
established and rival civilizations of the
time—the Byzantine Empire (heir to Rome)
and the Sassanid Empire (heir to the
imperial traditions of Persia).
Because of its location and long-distance
trade, Arabs were familiar with the larger
world, including the monotheism of
Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism.
By the time of Muhammad, most of the
urban Arabs had acknowledged the
preeminent position of Allah, the supreme
god of the Arab pantheon (there were
many gods, including Allah’s three
Many Arabs increasingly identified Allah
with Judaism’s Yahweh, and regarded
themselves also as the “children of
By 600 CE, many Arabs were religiously
moving towards Judaism or that of
Christianity, the most rapidly growing religion
in western Asia.
As many Arabs were beginning to explore the
possibility that Allah/Yahweh was the only
God, the many others residing in the Ka’aba
and in shrines across the peninsula were
considered nothing more than “helpless and
Even though Arab cities were widely
scattered, the city of Makkah (Mecca) had
long been established as a trading center
between Arabia and Africa to the west,
Yemen and India to the south, and Egypt and
Syria to the north.
Mecca was also
important because it
was the site of the
Ka’aba, the most
shrine in Arabia and a
thousands of pilgrims.
During this period, every pagan Arab tribe
had its own idol placed inside the Ka’aba
(when Muhammad conquered Mecca in
630 CE, the city had over 360 idols,
statues, and other pieces of devotion to
The leading tribe of Mecca were the
Quraysh, whose bloodline stretched back
to the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham).
However, the religion taught and practiced
by Abraham had long since been replaced
The Quraysh controlled access to the
Ka’aba and were able to grow extremely
wealthy taxing pilgrims wishing to see it.
Superstitions [omens, amulets, astrology,
and divination (by the casting of arrows)]
were important in deciding serious matters
like when to travel, marry, or go to war.
In Islam, this pre-Islamic polytheistic
period is known as jahiliyyah, or ‘the days
Social and tribal hierarchies also meant
the pre-Islamic period was marked by
oppression, tyranny, and conflict.
There was constant strife and hostility
between various tribes.
Slavery was a common practice (seen as a
sign of wealth and power).
Female infanticide was also common, as
daughters were considered an expensive
Women, whether married or not, like
slaves, were often considered personal
property that could be sold or exchanged.
Polygamy was a common practice.
Changes were coming, as a result of
The Arab Oral tradition:
From as early as the 5th century BCE, the
Arabs, originally a largely illiterate people
who were proud of their tribal genealogies
and histories, developed an incredibly
descriptive and rhythmic language.
This was achieved mostly through the
custom of memorizing oral narratives and
poetry from generation to generation.
Here is the tradition of the birth of Islam:
In the year 570 CE, Muhammad Ibn Abdullah
(which means “Praiseworthy”) was born in the
city of Mecca.
Muhammad was born into a family of noble
lineage that belonged to the Quraysh.
Orphaned at a young age (6), he would be
raised mostly by his uncle (his father’s
As a young man, he became a merchant.
Being a merchant enabled him to travel
throughout the Arabian Peninsula, where
he would come into contact with several
cultures and religions (including Judaism
He married Khadijah, an older woman (15
years older), and had six children (2
boys/4 girls). Both sons died in infancy.
He lived the life of a wealthy merchant.
But he was a highly reflective man who
was constantly troubled with religious and
moral issues, as he disapproved of the
lawlessness of his countrymen and was
troubled because many were polytheistic
Muhammad would retreat into the
mountains outside Mecca to pray and
contemplate the meaning and purpose of
existence (like Buddha and Jesus).
Then in the year 610 CE (around his 40th
birthday), while praying in a cave on Mount
Hira, Muhammad believed that he began to
receive revelations from the archangel Jibril
These revelations would continue over the
next 22 years.
some initial self
doubt that he was
chosen to be a
committed his life
to fulfilling the
he thought he
Muhammad was told by Jibril (Gabriel) he
was to be the Rasulillah (the Messenger of
God), a prophet charged with delivering a
message that would set straight
misinterpretations of earlier revelations
given through the Jewish or Christian
Note how most
Muhammad have his
though there is no
direct prohibition in
the Qur’an, Sunni
tradition is that
images could lead to
Here, Muhammad leads Abraham, Moses, and
Jesus in prayer (from a medieval Persian
Muhammad was a hanif (one who followed
the monotheistic teachings of Ibrahim).
As a hanif, he would spend weeks at a time
in the cave in the mountains outside
Mecca, fasting, praying, deep in
contemplation, grieving over what he saw
as social injustices; infant daughters buried
alive; women traded and bartered like
chattel; and slaves were treated no better
preaching to his
fellow Meccans that
there was no god
but Allah, that they
must submit to God’s
will, and he pointed
out their unjust and
He warned them of the impending
judgment of Allah (God).
His early preaching called for social justice
and equality and condemned the oppression
of the poor by the wealthy and powerful
(ideals also common in Judaism and
At first, some of the people of Mecca were
amused by Muhammad while others
scorned him. Eventually many became
interested in his words.
As his popularity and power grew, the
political leaders of Mecca began a hostile
campaign against him (because his
popularity threatened their power).
Muhammad’s message of absolute
monotheism and social equality was against
the Meccan establishment (of his own
Fearing that their pagan beliefs and tribal
social hierarchies were threatened by Islam,
tribal elders began to persecute and torture
Muslims and plotted Muhammad’s
assassination (his arch enemy was one of his
In 615, Muhammad
migration of 80
where they were
protected by the
Christian king and
The year 619 is known as the ‘Year of Grief’
for Muhammad. His uncle and protector,
Abu Talib died, and a few months later, his
beloved wife and spiritual companion,
Khadijah, passed away.
Adding to his pain, he visited a nearby
village to invite its people to Islam and its
people set their children upon him, chasing
him from the city and pelting him with
In 621, Muhammad came upon some
pilgrims from the city of Medina. They had
heard of Muhammad and were aware of
the Judeo-Christian claims of a “promised
Muhammad explained Islam and the
A year later, they invited Muhammad and
his followers to settle in Medina (Al
Madinah-which means “the city” in Arabic).
Still fearing for his life, in 622 he and
several followers secretly fled from Mecca
(he barely escaped assassination) to the
safer haven of Medina about 200 miles
north, where Muhammad established an
Islamic community in the city.
It is in Medina that Islam became the
foundation for an entire way of life.
This moment, known
as the Hijira
(“migration”), was so
important, it marks the
starting date of the
Muslim era, Year 1 on
(meaning we’re now in
the 1500th century of
the Islamic calendar).
In the early seventh century Arab society
was in social and cultural disarray, but
Muhammad forcefully taught Allah’s
lessons and began to transform his
He assumed full leadership of the city of
Medina—reorganizing and reforming the
city politically, religiously, and militarily.
Muhammad became the Prophet-ruler of a
virtual Islamic state within the heartlands
of pagan Arabia.
He was so successful that Muslims look
back to this time as the creation of the
standard or model for Muslim society to
One of the key ideas was that of equality
among Muslims (in the sight of Allah,
there were no differences among
That meant in theory, no racism. In
reality though, this only applied to
Muslims. Others were considered inferior.
The ancient tradition of slavery continued,
but one Muslim could not enslave another.
In the Muslim world it was considered a
good deed to free a slave, just not the
slave (s) of a good friend or relative.
particularly successful in
military affairs (followers
believed he was led and
protected by “the will of
He planned and led
many successful military
campaigns, and in 630
he led his followers to
victory over Mecca.
Muhammad was a compassionate
conqueror, granting mercy to all who
submitted to Islam.
He became known as the Prophet of
Muhammad provided such a powerful
stimulus that Arab society was mobilized
Even though he died in 632 CE, his faith and
fame spread like wildfire.
Arab armies carrying the banner of Islam
invaded, conquered, and converted wherever
By 715 CE, Islam reached far into North
Africa, into Spain, through the Transcaucasia,
and into most of Southwest Asia.
By 1000 CE, Islam had penetrated Southern
and Eastern Europe, Central Asia (even
reaching China), West Africa, East Africa, and
By 1000 CE, Islam had become the world’s
first truly global religion, stretching half
way across the world.
Muslims hold that the only genuine
explanation for the rapid Islamic conquest
of the Middle East outward was Divine
Providence, Allah’s help to those who
fought for the faith.
While the spiritual capital remained in Mecca,
as the Arab-Islamic Empire expanded, the
political/administrative capital went from its
original location in Medina to Damascus (Syria)
and then to Baghdad (Iraq).
While the empire expanded, it matured and
In architecture, mathematics, medicine,
and science the Arabs far outpaced their
The Arabs established great universities
and libraries in many cities, including
Baghdad, Cairo, Timbuktu, and Toledo.
Cathedral of Seville. It The Alhambra Palace
used to be a mosque. in Grenada.
How do Muslims regard
Muhammad? Muslims believe
Muhammad was singled out for
his natural virtue and integrity to
fulfill the role as the final
intermediary of divine
As a human (he was never
considered divine), Muhammad
naturally had his faults, but
Muslims regard him as the finest
our species has produced, the
ideal family man and leader of
So what is Islam?
The precepts of Islam in many ways are a
revision and embellishment of Judaic and
Christian beliefs and traditions.
All three faiths trace their origins to
Abraham (in Hebrew Abraham means
‘Father of Nations’ ).
his son Isaac
traced itself to
All three faiths believe in the same God,
who occasionally communicates to
humankind through prophets.
Islam believes that God spoke to
humankind beginning with Adam and
continued through Moses and Jesus, but
considered Muhammad as “the seal,” the
final and greatest of the prophets.
What are some of the fundamental beliefs?
Islam brought to the Arab world not only a
unifying religious faith it had lacked but also
a new set of values, a new way of life, a
new individual and collective dignity.
Islam dictated the observance of what
became known as the Five Pillars…they
are how the beliefs of Islam are to be put
into action every day.
The first pillar is the confession of faith—
the repeated expression of the basic
creed (belief in one god and the prophet
hood of Muhammad)—known as the
The second pillar is the daily prayer –five
times a day facing Mecca –known as the
Prayer times are dawn, just after noon,
mid-afternoon, just after sunset, and after
The third pillar is daytime fasting called
This occurs during the ninth month of the
Muslim calendar (lunar not solar) which is
From sun-up to sun-down, Muslims are
not supposed to eat or drink anything.
After sun-down Muslims usually eat a
light meal filled with sweets.
This daily sacrifice shows equality with the
poor and it reminds Muslims that the good
things in life are to be enjoyed but not to be
The fourth pillar is
the giving of alms
(charity) to the
If you can afford it,
you are to give
2.5% of your
savings to the poor
The final pillar is at least one pilgrimage in
each Muslim’s lifetime to Mecca –known as
the Hajj to see the Ka’abah.
and Ishmael built a
structure in what
came to be the
center of the city of
Mecca (a large
mosque has been
built around the
time, the Ka’abah
was about 15 feet
tall with a black
stone about the size
of a bowling ball in
one corner (believed
to be a meteor of
divine origin from
the time of Adam
This miniature (c. 1315)
rededicating the stone at
The meteor is framed in
silver, and pilgrims
attempt to kiss it like
Since this isn’t
because of the
crowds, you are to
point to the stone
and bow every time
you make a circuit
around the Ka’abah.
Islamic tradition from
the Qur’an asserts
that the Ka’abah was
the first place of
worship dedicated to
The Ka’abah was
thought to be at the
center of the world
with the Gate of
The Ka’abah marked the location
where the divine world intersected
with the mortal.
The embedded Black Stone was a
symbol of this intersection (as a
meteorite that had fallen from the
sky, it linked heaven and earth).
Today the Ka’abah is about 43 feet high
and about 40 feet wide.
Its holiness as a divine presence comes
mainly from its association with the lives
of Abraham and Muhammad.
It is covered by a black silk curtain made
in Egypt, decorated with gold-embroidered
calligraphy. This cloth is known as the
kiswah; and it is replaced yearly.
When performing the Salat (prayer 5 times
a day), you are to face towards Mecca
(because that’s where the Ka’abah is).
The Hajj occurs during the last month of
the Islamic year (known as the Month of
The pilgrimage rites occur during a 5-day
period, between the 8th - 12th days of
this lunar month.
In 2011, the Hajj will occur between
To the five pillars, many Muslims would
add a sixth, jihad, which means a
person’s inner struggle to live a good life.
Militant Muslims take jihad to mean either
“holy war” or “spiritual struggle against
the adversaries of Islam.”
believes in angels
(several are the
same), the devil,
and a Judgment
Day for all
Those who have been faithful and have
done Allah’s will, they will be rewarded in
For Muslims, death is not seen as the end
but merely as a transition from one state of
being into another as the soul journeys
back to the creator (Allah).
But those who have rejected faith and
commit sins and grave injustices, they are
condemned to the fires of Hell.
Muslims, like many Christians and Jews,
also believe in predestination…that your life
is predetermined and that God controls
everything that happens.
Muslims, like Christians and Jews, also have
a code of behavior that stresses correct
social behavior like respecting your parents,
your neighbors, and your community; and
being honest, trustworthy, and patient.
Islam forbids alcohol, smoking, eating
pork, and gambling.
It tolerated polygamy (you could have up
to 4 wives), although it spoke of the
virtues of monogamy.
Mosques (Muslim churches) were not only
for prayer, but they became social
gathering centers which knit the Arab
community closer together.
Mecca became the spiritual center for
a divided, widely dispersed people for
whom a collective focus was
Yet for all its vigor and success, Islam
still fragmented into sects.
The earliest and most consequential
division came about after the death
of Muhammad in 632 CE.
Who should be his legitimate successor? A
few believed that it should be a blood
relative of the prophet who led Islam.
Others felt that any truly devout follower of
Muhammad was qualified to lead the
No one could have predicted that this one
event—the election of a successor to
Muhammad—would lead to such a serious
divide in the Islamic community.
After Muhammad’s death, the first four
caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali)
were elected by due process; therefore a
democratic model is preferred).
The first chosen successor (caliph) was
Muhammad’s closest friend and the father
of one of his wives (and thus not a blood
A caliph is elected for life but can be
removed for misconduct/corruption.
His name was Abu
Bakr. Abu Bakr
became the first
Bakr died after
serving only 27
months as caliph.
The next two caliphs,
Umar, who ruled 10
years until 644 CE,
and Uthman, who
ruled 12 years until
656 CE, were close
friends and associates
of Muhammad, but
not blood relatives.
Umar was assassinated coming home from
a Hajj and the 84 year old Uthman was
killed by rebels, run through with a sword
while in prayer at home.
These three caliphs didn’t satisfy a faction
of Muslims who wanted to see Ali,
Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law
(married to his daughter Fatima), named
Tradition states that Ali was
the second person converted
When Ali’s turn came (and he
became the fourth caliph 24
years after Muhammad’s
death) his followers, known
as the Shiat Ali (the followers
of Ali) or the Shi’ites,
proclaimed that Muhammad
finally had a legitimate
Shi’ites believed that Ali should have
been the first caliph and that the
caliphate should pass down only to
direct descendants of Muhammed via
Ali and Fatima.
The fact that Ali wasn’t made the first
caliph is considered a major tragedy
and source of indignation by Shi’ites.
Ali’s caliphate ended in 661 with his
His eldest son, Hassan, agreed not to
become the caliph in return for the
sparing of his life and a pension.
He died less than a year later,
In 680, Ali’s younger son and another
grandson of Muhammad, Hussain, (known as
the “Prince of Martyrs”) led a small army of
followers and family against the man who
proclaimed himself the caliph (Yazid I).
Hopelessly outnumbered, Hussain’s
army was slaughtered at the Battle of
Karbala (in today’s central Iraq).
His head was severed and taken to
Damascus, Syria (the seat of
Umayyad power) and the women and
children were taken there as captives.
Tradition says that at Hussain’s death a
miracle happened…his severed head
recited the Qur’an.
This reflected his righteousness as
opposed to the corruption and
wrongdoing of Yazid.
Shi’ites consider the slaughter of
Hussain to be the most heinous crime
ever committed, because the blood of
Muhammad’s family was spilled by
The division between those who were
Shi’ites and those who were Sunnis
Shi’ites consider it the duty of
believers to yearly commemorate the
death of Hussain (and to curse
Yazid), known as the Day of Ashura,
(even though Muhammad himself
prohibited ritual and passionate
displays of bereavement).
Hussain’s death is
during which the
with chains, knives,
and with sharp metal
Hussain’s shrine in Karbala, is visited
by over 2,000,000 people every year.
The Sunni’s (Sunni means the “path
shown by Muhammad” ) did not see a
blood relationship as necessary for
From the beginning of this disagreement,
the vast majority of Muslims took the Sunni
The great expansion of Islam was propelled
by Sunnis; the Shi’ites survived as a small
minority scattered throughout the empire
(today mainly in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and
Today, about 85-90% of Muslims are
(Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi
Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, etc…--Sunni)
Since Ali’s last descendent died in the 9th
century (and thus the blood line of
Muhammad), Shi’ites created a council of
12 scholars called the ulema to elect a
Shi’ites believe their Supreme Imam is a
fully spiritual guide, and the sole source of
true knowledge, inheriting some of
The Shia Imam has come to be imbued
with Pope-like infallibility and the Shia
religious hierarchy is not dissimilar in
structure and religious power to that of
the Catholic Church.
Sunnis and Shi’ites agree on the
fundamentals of Islam, like the Five
Pillars, and they recognize each other as
Muslims, but they have some deep
divisions (like in Christianity).
Islam is held together by very strict laws
(called the sharia—which in Arabic means
“the clear, straight path”).
These laws took over 300 years to develop
and are housed in the Muslim equivalent
to the Judaic/Christian bible, a book
known as the Qur’an (Koran).
Islam In the Qur’an, everything
in life is regulated, going
forbidden to what’s
absolutely required to
lead a good, moral life.
Over centuries, the
sharia became very rigid,
and by 1200 C.E. it was
thought to be perfect
(which meant there was
little room for
Having sacred laws created a strong bond
among Muslims (which was important
since they lived in so many areas).
From India to North Africa, people spoke a
similar language and received a similar
education (in Islam).
Having sacred laws created a deep sense
of being “better” (ethnocentrism) than
others (even though Islam believes in the
equality of all faiths).
Islamic tradition also believes that the Day
of Judgment will follow a series of
apocalypses (as in the Judeo/Christian
These apocalypses include earthquakes
and other natural disasters (including the
sun rising in the West).
When oppression covers the Earth, it is
believed that Jesus will reappear and
search out and kill the anti-Christ.
Jesus will defeat evil, and peace will reign.
Jesus will marry, have children, die a
natural death, and be buried in Medina
next to Muhammad.
After this “second coming,” life as we
know it will end, and the final judgment
will take place.