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The Birth of Islam

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Islam is one of the largest and most popular religions in the world today. Believers in Islam, known as Muslims, can be found all over the globe and the religion has a long and rich history. This Entry deals with the origin and early spread of the religion.

Muhammad1 is often referred to as the founder of Islam. He started by preaching, converted people to the religion, and organised an Islamic army. Muslims believe that there is one all-powerful God (Allah) and that Muhammad was his last prophet; Allah sent down various prophets (including Jesus) but Muhammad was the final one; Muslims have a holy book, called the Qur'an, which they believe is the word of Allah, as dictated to Muhammad.

Muslim dates and Christian dates2 are different. Muslims started their year from the Christian year 622AD. This was the year when Muhammad went from Mecca to Medina - there's more about that later. The typical Christian dates have been used throughout this Entry. Also, to make things even more confusing, many of the cities and countries have changed their names and locations since Muhammad was around.

A Bit of Background Information on Muhammad

Although we have some knowledge of Muhammad today, due to remaining historical records, we are not sure how accurate the records are. Muslims obviously saw Muhammad as a prophet, and may have altered their descriptions of him to fit this.

However, it is generally accepted that Muhammad was born in Mecca, in 570AD or thereabouts. His family was definitely not rich, but was not overly poor. Muhammad was orphaned at the age of six and was sent to live with relatives. He grew up to become a dealer and married a widow, called Khadija, who was a lot older than he was.

When Muhammad was about 40 years old, he went alone to pray in a cave on Mount Hira (just outside Mecca). There he was visited by some sort of supernatural being, who he later referred to as the Angel Gabriel, who dictated various sacred 'texts' that he had to learn. Muhammad claimed that these visitations continued until his death (about twenty years later). The 'texts' he learnt make up the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an.

Muhammad felt that as a prophet of Allah (God) he must transmit Allah's messages to the people. He began preaching throughout Mecca. His wife, other relatives, and a good friend called Abu Bakr became the first converts to the new religion. It is said that Allah called the religion 'Islam' which means something like 'submission to the will of God'. Muhammad began gathering more and more followers, mostly young people.

A Bit of Background Information on the Geographic Area

Muhammad lived in an area called Arabia, which was inhabited by various tribal groups. Muhammad was part of one of these tribes (his tribe was named Qu'raysh), and lived in Mecca. Mecca was a very active trade city at that time, and there were many trade routes between Mecca and other cities. The fact that Mecca was an active city with easily accessible routes to many places probably helped the spread of Islam.

Near Arabia was the Persian Empire (to the north-east) and the Byzantine Empire (to the north-west). Christians and Jews lived in the area, and it is thought that Muhammad carefully studied both religions. Generally the Arabian tribal groups worshiped many gods, but did have one sort of High God, who they called Allah. They worshiped their various gods around a large black stone, called the Kabah. The Kabah is now very holy and belongs to Muslims today, but of course they only worship the one god. This god is thought to be the same one that the Christians and Jews worship. Indeed, it is thought that before Muhammad arrived, Christians and Jews had claimed that the Arabs had been left out of the divine plan, as they did not have their own prophet. When Muhammad arrived, all Arabs were glad they finally had a prophet of their own. In the Qur'an it states that Muhammad is the last (and greatest) prophet, which would have stopped others from coming along and saying 'Hello! I'm a prophet too!'

The Start of Islam

Muhammad preached his new religion throughout Mecca with his friends and family as the first converts. He actually waited for a couple of years after his first vision before he started preaching. Unfortunately, his preaching was not popular with the ruling classes of the city, mainly because it promoted monotheism (belief in one god). Muhammad was offered bribes to discontinue preaching, as well as being threatened, and those who converted were publicly tortured or placed under house arrest. There were also trade sanctions placed against them. In 622AD, soldiers were sent to arrest or murder Muhammad in Mecca, but he managed to flee with Abu Bakr. They hid in caves, with other disciples bringing supplies for them. Eventually, a group left to go to a nearby city Yathrib (which is now called Medina). Yathrib's ruling classes had shown an interest in Muhammad and his work, and were keen in having a sort of unifying force in their city, due to their large number of various divided tribes, including some Jewish ones. The flight to Medina is so important to Muslim people that they have their own special word for it - hegira - and started dating their years from then.

Upon arriving in Yathrib, Muhammad was welcomed by the locals - a far cry from Mecca, where he had been called an enemy of the people. Shortly after he had arrived, he built his first mosque (the Islamic place of worship). Over the next ten years many people in Yathrib were interested in what Muhammad had to say, and converted to Islam. He became both the spiritual and political leader of the city. Unfortunately, some nearby tribes were not so enthusiastic about the faith, and were engaged in war with Muhammad and his supporters for almost the whole time.

Many travelling Muslims, however, were the subject of a lot of raids perpetrated by Meccans. Although many of these raids may simply have been to get resources - and not a specific religious slur - Muslims were keen on revenge, and Muhammad responded by authorising attacks on Meccans in return. These small raids escalated to armed conflicts. Most of them were won by the Muslims. However, after the battles between the Muslims and the Meccans, a peace treaty was forged in 628. At this time, Muhammad was seen as the most powerful man in Arabia. Due to this, many more Arabian tribes were keen to join the faith. Two years after the peace treaty was made, it was violated by the Meccans. The Muslims responded by marching their huge army along to Mecca. The Meccans could tell immediately that they would be defeated, so they opened their doors voluntarily and did not try to fight. Muhammad finally had control of Mecca. Many people in Mecca saw their defeat as a sign of Muhammad's spiritual power, and believed it was their destiny to convert to Islam.

More Conquests

By the time Muhammad died in 632AD, most of Arabia had become Muslim, joined up by force, bribes or deals. All the people had been joined up by this single unifying force. Previously there had been tribal wars, but once the groups were united under Islam, they were forced to be kind to fellow Arabs. Violence was not promoted. Understandably, people generally felt that they preferred life with no fighting, as without fights and killings life was a lot easier and a lot nicer for them. In some cases, people lived under Muhammad's rule, but had not actually been converted to Islam. However, taxes were imposed on these people, which of course caused a lot to convert. Incidentally, this also worked the other way in some cities that were conquered by Islam. With the old rulers, the inhabitants had been paying heavy taxes, and once Muhammad was in charge, the taxes ceased.

Muhammad named Abu Bakr as his successor, a caliph. Abu Bakr himself died two years later, so a man named Omar was appointed. Shortly after Muhammad's death, the Muslim army declared holy war on nearby Syria, which was then part of the Byzantine Empire.

The army pushed through the Byzantine and Persian Empires, and by 649 AD Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Tripolitania and Cyprus had all fallen to Islam.

The army was successful for a number of reasons. For a start, it was large. Most of its members were enthusiastic new converts, quite young, and were keen to do their way by God. Previously separate tribes had tried attacks and had failed, but with the tribes united under one leader they were a much stronger force.

Another reason was that many of the other empires were simply not ready to defend themselves against attacks. The Persian Empire, for example, had been worn out by years of fighting against the Byzantine Empire. It was therefore exhausted and weakened. It had suffered a rather bad year with heavy flooding, and was therefore not able to provide any kind of defence against the Muslim army that swept in.

In conclusion, Muhammad had a paramount role in the foundation of the Islamic religion, and the faith was so successful in its early expansion because, like any successful religion, it provided a clear code of behaviour that was suitable to the time of its foundation. Once the religion had people willing to fight for its cause, it was able to expand. The religion provided unity and support. It was simple, easy to understand and conversion was straightforward. Islam is a huge world religion today, but it would not have been nearly as successful without Muhammad surviving to play a crucial role in the first years of expansion.

1Also spelled Mohamed and Mohammed. Islamic terms were written in Arabic which uses a different script to today's Latin alphabet. Due to transliteration, when these words are written in English, there are no definitive spellings, and various different ones are used - for example, 'Muslim' and 'Moslem' are both used.2The dates used by many societies today.

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