What is Islam?
Islam is a religion that was founded in 610 A.D. by Muhammad. Those who follow the path of Islam are known as Muslims. The Islamic holy text is known as the Koran, which can also be spelled Quran and Qur’an. The Muslim people follow the teachings of the Koran, recognizing it as a holy text sent by their god, Allah. Islam is based on the “Five Pillars”, which are as follows: Have faith in Allah; Take a pilgrimage to the city of Mecca; Engage in the month-long fast that happens yearly during Ramadan; Give alms; as well as Pray five times a day. One teaching of Muhammad was to spread Islam throughout the world. While Christianity was spreading throughout Europe, Islam was spreading to North Africa, the Middle East, as well as parts of Asia and Spain. Due to both religions spreading, conflicts would happen between the two, especially during the Crusades.
Islam is currently one of the largest religions in the world, held (in some form or another) by almost 2 billion people in countries all over the globe. It is one of three main Abrahamic monotheistic religions, the other two being Judaism and Christianity. Monotheistic simply means there is only one God, and Abrahamic means that all three of these faiths trace their lineage, in part, back to the figure of Abraham. In Islamic tradition, Abraham is considered the first in a long line of prophets that culminates in Muhammad, who is considered the final messenger of Allah.
So, who was Muhammad and what was his role in the formation of Islam? Muhammad was originally a merchant born in 570 AD in the city of Mecca (located in modern-day Saudi Arabia). At the age of 40, he claimed that he was visited by the angel Gabriel who shared with him a revelation from Allah. He began to share these revelations when he started preaching within his community three years later in 613. He preached about the singular nature of God (which in Arabic is translated as Allah) and spoke out against incorrect behavior among his peers, warning them of Allah’s divine judgement. During this time, much of the Arabian Peninsula was worshipping multiple gods and practicing numerous religions. In the center of Muhammad’s hometown of Mecca, there was even a shrine called the Kaaba that over the centuries had been changed from a holy structure built by Abraham to honor God into a shrine used to worship numerous idols. Muhammad claimed Allah revealed his anger over this, and then Muhammad passed that anger on to his community. Surprisingly, this did not make him very popular among his peers and he was eventually chased out of the city of Mecca. He fled to the city of Medina with a select few of his close followers.
This forced move is known as the Hegira, which officially marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Eventually, Muhammad and his followers (who had multiplied significantly while he was in Medina) returned to Mecca and took over the city. After only three years back in Mecca, Muhammad died in 632. By the time of his death, almost the entire Arabian Peninsula had converted to Islam.
During his last years, Muhammad dictated all of his avowed visions and revelations from Allah, which were then written down word-for-word. These visions are what make up the Islamic holy book, called the Qur’an. There are many intricacies within Islamic scripture, but for the sake of clarity, we’ll focus on the primary beliefs. These are referred to as the Five Pillars of Islam. Much like the Ten Commandments in Jewish and Christian theology, the Five Pillars of Islam are the basic tenets that all Muslims must follow.
The first pillar of Islam is the shahada, the profession of faith. This is the first step of conversion to Islam and is simply an acknowledgement that “there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” The second pillar is salat, or prayer. Muslims are required to pray five times a day while facing Mecca. These prayers occur at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and after dark. Prayers are based on scripture contained within the Qur’an and are done while kneeling on the floor on a prayer rug. The third pillar of Islam is zakat, the giving of alms. Muslims are expected to donate and provide gifts of charity to their community. This is dictated in the Qur’an but has also been a large facet of Islamic cultural rule. The fourth pillar, sawm, requires Muslims to fast during the month of Ramadan. During the daylight hours, all healthy adult Muslims must abstain from food or drink. These fasts are often broken with large dinners with family and friends at sunset each night. The fasting is meant to bring renewed gratitude for the provisions given to them by Allah. Finally, the fifth pillar of Islam is the hajj. The hajj is a pilgrimage made to the holy city of Mecca. All Muslims who are financially and physically able are expected to make this pilgrimage at least once in their life. This pilgrimage centers around the Kaaba, which, after Muhammad’s visions, had been converted back into a holy shrine for Islam. These five facets of Islam were dictated by Muhammad before his death and have been core concepts of the faith since its inception.
A term you might be more familiar with is jihad. Its definition is uncertain, controversial, and complicated. Many Americans since 9/11 have generally conceived of it as a “holy war”, particularly a war fought by Muslims to forcibly convert non-Muslims. The 1989 Concise Encyclopedia of Islam also defined it that way, as a “holy war, a Divine institution of warfare to extend Islam into the abode of struggle, or to defend Islam from danger.” But in 1992 another scholar expanded this “holy war” definition stating that “the word derives from an Arabic root meaning basically to strive . . . all Muslims are obliged to wage a spiritual jihad in the sense of striving against sin and sinful inclinations within themselves. . . .” But as I’ve said, the definition of jihad is complicated. In 1898 Sir Thomas Arnold explained that “There are no passages in the Qur’an that in any way enjoin forcible conversion, and many that on the contrary limit propagandist efforts to preaching and persuasion. It has further been maintained that no passage in the Qur’an authorises unprovoked attacks on unbelievers, and that, in accordance with such teaching, all the wars of Muhammad were defensive.” However, Sir Arnold explains that after Muhammad, “it is due to the Islamic legists and commentators that jihad came to be interpreted as a religious war waged against unbelievers, who might be attacked even though they were not the aggressors. . . .” However its definition is interpreted, according to Islamic tradition, jihad is important: Mu’adh ibn Jabal, a companion of Muhammad and compiler of the Qur’an, recorded that Muhammad told him that “The head of the matter is Islam, its pillar is prayer, and jihād is its peak.”
After Muhammad’s death in 632, there was an immediate power struggle over who would take his place as the leader of the faith. Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad’s closest friends, was nominated by another prominent follower and, with additional support, was named the first caliph, which is the title given to the male ruler of the Islamic world. This choice was not accepted by all, with many other followers believing that Muhammad would have wanted his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, to be his successor. The majority, however, chose to follow Abu Bakr, who then founded the first caliphate. This division still exists today. The branch of Islam that followed Ali became the Shia sect, and those who followed Abu Bakr the Sunni sect. Today, Iran is the foremost Shia geopolitical power while Saudi Arabia, located just across the Persian Gulf, is the main Sunni geopolitical power. Sunnis vastly outnumber Shi’ites today.
Immediately after his ascendency to caliph, Abu Bakr worked to rid the Middle East of both the Byzantine and Persian empires. The first four caliphates that followed the death of Muhammad are collectively called the “Rashidun” caliphate. After the Rashidun caliphate, the Umayyad Caliphate, which ruled from 661-750, continued Muslim conquests past the Arabian Peninsula.
By the end of the Umayyad Caliphate, the Islamic world had grown tremendously. While only 150 years before, Islam was focused primarily in the cities of Mecca and Medina, by 750, the empire stretched from the south of Spain, across the north of Africa, and all the way to the western border of modern-day India.
So, we can see that, regardless of the confusion and differing opinions after the death of Muhammad, Islam spread rapidly. But how did such a new religion spread so quickly and so far? Scholars have long debated this topic and the answer is not simple. There are a few explanations given: the missionary exhortations of the Qur’an and dutiful missionary activity by Muslims, the relative ease of conversion, early medieval trade routes, tolerance of local traditions, and violent conquest. It is likely that all of these played a role in the spread of Islam.
As we discussed previously, all conversion requires is that one make a profession of the faith and follow the other four pillars. Because many ancient and medieval trade routes converged and passed through the Arabian Peninsula, conversion came with some benefits for traders and merchants.
Merchants would encounter Muslims along their trade routes and would often be interested in conversion. Not only were they convinced by the religious aspects, but they also knew that trade would be easier if both parties had something as important as religion in common. It was a built-in element of trust. Once these merchants converted and continued on their way, they shared their new faith with others along the trade routes, spreading Islam organically as they traveled. Finally, as the faith and the empire spread, it encountered numerous other cultures and traditions. Instead of wiping out pre-Islamic culture in the areas they conquered, caliphs instead chose to embrace local tradition and blend it with the broader Islamic culture. The newly conquered civilizations were able to continue many of their traditions, just with a new Islamic backdrop.
While Islamic tradition practiced some cultural tolerance and brought religious unity to its conquered lands, they did encounter pushback from one group in particular: the Christian West. While Islam was spreading throughout the Middle East, Christianity was also growing in the West. So, just as Islam was growing, so, too, was Christianity. Christianity requires believers to confess Jesus Christ as a divine person of the Christian trinity, which Islam considered idolotrous. This led to a clash between the two growing powers.
There were two main movements against the spread of Islam by the Christian states: the Reconquista and the Crusades.
The Reconquista was a period of almost 800 years where the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) fought against the spread of Islam within their territories. Originally started in 722, Christian forces battled the encroaching Umayyads in order to begin the reconquest of their land. These battles were not continual, but the Christian idea of reconquering what they considered their rightful land was. The Reconquista officially ended once the great Muslim cities of Córdoba, Seville, and Granada fell to the Christian armies. By 1491, the Reconquista was officially over and the Christian kingdoms had reclaimed all of their territory in the Iberian Peninsula.
The Crusades were much broader in both scope and geography than the Reconquista. The Crusades were a collection of numerous individual wars launched by either the Pope or by enthusiastic Christian kings of Europe. Most historians trace the origins of the First Crusade to a sermon preached by Pope Urban II in 1095 which rallied Christian rulers to take back the Holy Land from Muslim control. Primarily, Crusaders sought access to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church in Jerusalem that was believed to hold the tomb of Jesus. The Pope offered those willing to fight eternal glory and, perhaps more appealingly, absolution from all sin committed their entire lives. The First Crusade was ultimately successful, with Christian Crusaders capturing the city of Jerusalem on July 15, 1099. This did not last, however, and the city of Jerusalem and much of the surrounding territory continued to be traded back and forth for hundreds of years.
This back-and-forth fighting between Christian and Muslim forces did not officially end until 1492, after the end of the Reconquista. Unfortunately, the long-standing enmity between the two religions did not end after the almost 400 years of hostilities. Echoes of the Crusades and the Reconquista remain and influence modern political and ideological thought in pockets of both religions.
Hopefully this brief insight into Muslim faith and history has given you a better understanding of the second-largest faith in the world. This is just a taste of the rich history and tradition of Islam, and I hope it encourages you to learn more about the history of world religions. Before we go, let’s go over a few quick review questions to test your knowledge.
1. What are the two most sacred cities in Islamic theology?
- Mecca and Baghdad
- Medina and Baghdad
- Mecca and Medina
- Baghdad and Córdoba
The correct answer is C! Mecca is the holiest city in Islam, as it was the birthplace of Muhammad. Medina is also sacred because of the Hegira, when Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina.
2. Which one of these is NOT one of the Five Pillars of Faith?
- Giving of Alms
The correct answer is D! The five pillars of faith are declaration of faith, obligatory prayer, compulsory giving, fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Baptism is a practice held by most Christian denominations.
That’s all for now. Thanks for watching and happy studying.