Origins of Islam
Today we shall unpack more of what Islam means to those who follow the faith, and how it relates to Christianity in similarity and difference. Our first step however will be to briefly appreciate its origins!
Society Muhammad was born into
The founder of Islam was the prophet Muhammad born in the city of Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia) around 570AD. The family he was born into was of some importance in the city however his father had died before he was born and soon after when he was six years old so did his mother. The conditions in Arabia and for the Arab people before Muhammad was a complex network of nomadic tribes who lived and moved around the desert regions. Loyalties were clear cut and rules for living were easy to understand as your duty and honour were simply bound to your clan. But it wasn’t long before these tribes began to congregate and towns and then a few cities were forged. Suddenly with a close community filled with a mixture of clans the established framework and social order was threatened. Orphans and the poor were increasingly ignored and as resources and power became sought after commodities the moral fabric of what was a simple nomadic life became vulnerable. It is important to realise that this is the social setting which Muhammad was born into and the problems which he witnessed.
The religious situation of the Arab people leading up to Muhammad was a cauldron of idol worship, spirit worship, and sun, moon and star worship. There was a community of Jews living in Mecca at the time, and nearby countries like Ethiopia were almost entirely Christian. In fact the Ka’aba, which is the large cubic structure in Mecca today and forms the focus of the Hajj pilgrimage, was already old by the time of the Islamic prophet. It was used to house hundreds of idols, but later in Muhammad’s life when he returned from Medina to Mecca he claimed the structure for Islam.
The beginnings and growth of Islam
Around 610AD Muhammad received the first of what was to be seven visions of revelation from Allah delivered through the messenger Angel Gabriel and would form the Qur’an after his death. The first one was famously in a desert cave which he commonly used as a retreat. From here on Muhammad began proclaiming his message from Allah to the Arab people. It was one which called them to abandon their idol worship and commit to monotheism. But it wasn’t limited to being only a religious message but also a political and social structure which would alleviate the injustices Muhammad perceived and one which would please Allah. He found he had only some followers of this new faith and eventually in 622AD in fearing for his life he fled to the nearby city of Medina who welcomed him with open arms. Very quickly he established a political leadership in Medina, his followers grew, but the opposition in Mecca remained. After eight years of petty killings between the two cities, this is where jihad has its roots, Muhammad with his men went to Mecca desiring a peaceful pilgrimage, but instead the officials surrendered in fear of their safety and the city became Islamic.
During 632AD Muhammad died whilst living in Medina and had left in his wake a large political empire as well as a new religion. However, he had failed to declare a successor. He was the final prophet, the seal of the prophets, and so another one was not sought, but instead a political leader. There was much struggle within the Islamic believers in Medina and despite a successor being appointed a division was formed which was to remain under the surface and come out later through much blood shed in the creation of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. The Islamic empire expanded exponentially over subsequent years and it is important to remember that this all began with the twenty year prophetic service of one man Muhammad. The growth was achieved primarily through plundering neighbouring towns and cities and when control was achieved the Islamic faith was a prerequisite for the indigenous people to stay. The only exception at the start were for Jews and Christians who were tolerated as second rate citizens, but later on even this faded. However, more peaceful conversions were happening at the same time through Muslims sharing their faith whilst working the trade routes across the continent and into Asia. What Muhammad had achieved was a first for the Arab people, a sense of unity and loyalty to more than just their individual clan. Now it was to the one god Allah and his prophet, and this provided the opportunity for growth and prosperity.
Islam before Muhammad
What we have just discussed paints a very quick picture of the beginnings of Islam as we currently would know it. However, from a Muslim’s perspective we must appreciate that Islam existed before Muhammad. Islam when translated simply means one who voluntarily submits to Allah, which is simply the Arabic word for God. Muhammad was the last prophet, the one sent to the Arabs. Previous prophets from Allah went to the Jews in the form of Abraham, Moses, David and many more. For the Greek people Jesus was Allah’s prophet. All of these familiar names were in fact Muslims as declared in the Qur’an and their revelations to their respective peoples were of a similar type to that of the Qur’an. Moses brought the Torah, David the Psalms, and Jesus the Gospel.
However, the respective peoples corrupted these books and didn’t live as Allah would have wanted; hence the current versions of these holy books, are not considered by Muslims as original. This explains how a Muslim views a Christian. They have corrupted the sacred revelation given by Jesus to include things like the Trinity and divinity of him, and so are in need of repentance. For a Muslim, Christianity was born out of this dishonest process and therefore, did not exist before or because of, the prophet Jesus.
Next time we shall consider in more detail the nature, design, and layout of the Qur’an and Hadith, Muhammad’s great religious legacy.