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Islam: a Brief Historic Overview

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Islam is a major world religion founded in Arabia and based on the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. The Arabic word Islam means, to surrender, but as a religious term in the Qur’an, it means to surrender to the will or law of God. All devout Muslims, no matter what race they are, learn to read Arabic so they may read the Qur’an in it’s native tongue. Muslims also have they’re own calender based on the phases of the moon. You find no racism in Islam because all people are equal in the eyes of Allah. This, along with the Arabic language, unifies Muslims across the globe. Islam has flourished in diverse climatic, cultural, and ethnic regions and although exact statistics are not available, the Muslim world population is estimated at more than 1 billion. In Europe, Islam is the second largest religion after Christianity. So how did Islam come to be so universal? What makes Islam such a major world religion?

To understand Islam better, one must first know something about the Prophet Muhammad. The founder of Islam was Muhammad. The Qur’an describes Muhammad as the Seal of all Prophets meaning that the prophethood was finished with him. The exact date is unknown but Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570ad. His father died before he was born and he lost his mother when he was six. After this an uncle raised him. We don’t know about his childhood except that he was very trustworthy and with a good sense of human relationships. Because of this he became known as al-Amin (the trusted one).

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Muhammad was forty when the angel Gabriel came to him and revealed the Qur’an. He began in 610 to preach the first of a series of revelations granted him by Allah. The divine messages, received during solitary visits into the desert, continued during the remainder of his life. After four years he had converted some 40 persons to his views, and he then began to preach openly in his native city of Mecca. Muhammad advocated improving the lives of slaves, women, orphans and the poor. This quickly angered the rich people who dominated Mecca. They persecuted some of Muhammad’s weaker followers, and in 615 he ordered 83 families to take refuge in Ethiopia. In 662, After careful considerations, Muhammad asked all of his followers to leave Mecca and travel to Medina. It is from this event that the Islamic calendar is dated. In Medina, Muhammad soon held authority, having been recognised as a lawgiver and prophet. Arab and Jewish opposition to him in Medina were crushed, and war was started against Mecca. Arab tribes declared their allegiance to him and Mecca surrendered in 630. Muhammad died suddenly in 632. After his death, his followers compiled everything they believed was the word of God in a document known as the Qur’an, the holy Scripture of Islam. The Qur’an is the final and most nearly perfect revelation of God.

Before Islam became dominant, religion in Arabia was based on idolatry and polytheism. Although they did hold beliefs about an afterlife they were not very clear. This made it easy for Islam to convert people who wished for a more structured religion. The religions that came before Islam had no strict dogma at all and Idolatry was a major part of worship. The central sanctuary at Mecca had once held around 360 idols. Islam incorporated many of Arabia’s native beliefs into it religion. Such things as the pilgrimage to Mecca were absorbed, in modified form, from Arabic paganism. People had already been making pilgrimages to Mecca for a long time before Muhammad brought Islam to them and the pilgrimage of Hajj. The circumambulation that Muslims performed at Hajj was an old pagan tradition. They had used it as part of the ceremonies to the gods. Even the name Allah is taken from a pagan god. Allah is the general Arabic term for the supreme being rather than the name of a particular deity. Rather than introducing a new god, Muhammad denied the existence of the gods worshipped before his prophethood and proclaimed the omnipotence of Allah. This helped the pagans convert to Islam more easily. They could recognise the name and it didn’t feel like complete abandonment of their religion. Not much is known about Pre Islamic Arabia. One of the few facts that is agreed on is the diversity of the Arabian society prior to Islam. It was comprised of diverse communities with different customs, languages and lifestyles. There was also no political unity. This time before Islam is called Jahiliyyah, or the age of ignorance.

Islam emerged in Arabia in the seventh century and declared itself to be a re-emergence of the old monotheistic religion that had once existed there. Important elements from Judaism and Christianity were incorporated into Islam. It is closer to Judaism and Christianity that any Indian religion. When Muhammad converted his birth city of Mecca, he destroyed all the idols within the ka’ba and dedicated the place to Allah. During the first centuries of Islam (7th-10th century), its law and theology were developed. Islam expanded rapidly after the death of Muhammad. At his death Islam had spread across the entire Arabian Peninsula. In 661 Egypt and Persia had also been converted. By the 8th century Islam had reached as far as Spain, France and Constantinople. It was not really a question of conquest. The Islamic faith had enormous appeal and people were converted to it wherever the Arabs conquered and settled. Converts were encouraged by the promises that Allah made about heaven.

The Islamic view of society is that the goal of all Muslims is God’s rule on earth. Islamic philosophy is based on the belief that all spheres of life form a unity that must be infused with Islamic values. This accounts for Islam’s strong emphasis on social duties. Its mission is to command good and prohibit evil and to reform the earth.

It is impossible to be sure of how Islam grew to be such a major world religion. Much of it has to do with the appeal of Muhammad. He was a kind and generous man with a strong sense of faith that inspired others. Islam also became so powerful because of its strong confidence in an afterlife. People want to believe in place where you could be rewarded for good deeds and punished for bad deeds. The fear of eternal punishment would also have affected people’s decisions. They would convert to save their souls. But most important was the knowledge that whatever hardships they must face when death came they would be rewarded. A Muslim knows that when they there will be everlasting paradise waiting for them.

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