Islam: A Brief Introduction
Islam is a monotheistic and Abrahamic religion articulated by the Qur’an, a book considered by its adherents to be the verbatim word of God (Allāh) and by the teachings and normative example (called the Sunnah and composed of Hadith) of Muhammad, considered by them to be the last prophet of God. An adherent of Islam is called a Muslim.
Muslims believe that God is one and incomparable and the purpose of existence is to love and serve God. Muslims also believe that Islam is the complete and universal version of a primordial faith that was revealed at many times and places before, including through Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, whom they consider prophets. Muslims maintain that the previous messages and revelations have been partially misinterpreted or altered over time, but consider the Arabic Qur’an to be both the unaltered and the final revelation of God. Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are basic concepts and obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, providing guidance on multifarious topics from banking and welfare, to warfare and the environment.
Most Muslims are of two denominations, Sunni (75–90%), or Shia (10–20%). About 13% of Muslims live in Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, 25% in South Asia, 20% in the Middle East, and 15% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sizable minorities are also found in China, Russia, and the Americas. Converts and immigrant communities are found in almost every part of the world (see Islam by country). With about 1.57 billion followers or 23% of earth’s population, Islam is the second-largest religion and one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. (45)
A Brief History of Muhammad
In Muslim tradition, Muhammad (c. 570 – June 8, 632) is viewed as the last in a series of prophets. During the last 22 years of his life, beginning at age 40 in 610 CE, according to the earliest surviving biographies, Muhammad reported revelations that he believed to be from God conveyed to him through the archangel Gabriel (Jibril). The content of these revelations, known as the Qur’an, was memorized and recorded by his companions. During this time, Muhammad preached to the people in Mecca, imploring them to abandon polytheism and to worship one God. Although some converted to Islam, Muhammad and his followers were persecuted by the leading Meccan authorities.
After 12 years of the persecution of Muslims by the Meccans and the Meccan boycott of Muhammad’s relatives, Muhammad and the Muslims performed the Hijra (“emigration”) to the city of Medina (formerly known as Yathrib) in 622 CE. There, with the Medinan converts and the Meccan migrants, Muhammad in Medina established his political and religious authority. A state was established in accordance with Islamic economic jurisprudence.
Within a few years, two battles were fought against the Meccan forces:
- First, the Battle of Badr in 624 CE, which was a Muslim victory.
- Then a year later, when the Meccans returned to Medina, the Battle of Uhud, which ended inconclusively.
The Arab tribes in the rest of Arabia then formed a confederation and during the Battle of the Trench besieged Medina with the intent of finishing off Islam. In 628 CE, a treaty was signed between Mecca and the Muslims and was broken by Mecca two years later. After the signing of the treaty many more people converted to Islam. At the same time, Meccan trade routes were cut off as Muhammad brought surrounding desert tribes under his control. By 629 CE Muhammad was victorious in the nearly bloodless Conquest of Mecca, and by the time of his death in 632 CE (at the age of 62) he united the tribes of Arabia into a single religious polity. (45)
The Early Caliphates
With Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, disagreement broke out over who would succeed him as leader of the Muslim community. Abu Bakr, a companion and close friend of Muhammad, was made the first caliph. The Quran was compiled into one book during this time.
Abu Bakr’s death in 634 CE resulted in the succession of Umar ibn al-Khattab as the caliph, followed by Uthman ibn al-Affan, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and Hasan ibn Ali. The first caliphs are known as the “Rightly Guided Caliphs.” Under them, the territory under Muslim rule expanded deeply into the Persian and Byzantine territories. When Umar was assassinated in 644 CE, the election of Uthman as successor was met with increasing opposition. The Quran was standardized during this time. In 656 CE, Uthman was also killed, and Ali assumed the position of caliph. After the first civil war (the “First Fitna”), Ali was assassinated by the Kharijites in 661 CE. Following this, Mu’awiyah seized power and began the Umayyad Dynasty. (45)
After being united under the aegis of Islam, the Arabs—known as the Umayyads—began military campaigns outside of their realm. In the mid-seventh century, Muslim armies began invading parts of the increasingly vulnerable Sassanid and Byzantine empires, claiming land in what are now Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. In fact, so powerful were the Islamic army and navy that Byzantium was permanently crippled by the invasions.
The Umayyads went on to conquer northern Africa and invade India, building a kingdom that exceeded the size of the Roman Empire. But despite their success abroad, the Umayyads suffered a period of discord at home: a succession dispute resulted in a division of Muslims into Sunni and Shi’a factions. While the Sunnis retained temporary control of the caliphate, a Shi’ite uprising in 750 CE toppled the Umayyads and established Abbasid rule. Under the Abbasids, mass conversion to Islam was encouraged, as was a dynamic Afro-Eurasian trade network. The Abbasids also established Persian as the official language, and encouraged the flowering of Islamic culture. (46)
When a Shi’a leader—Abu al-Abbas—usurped power from the reigning Sunni caliph in 750 CE, the Umayyad era officially came to a close. While al-Abbas tried to execute all members of the Sunni Umayyads, one leader escaped to the Iberian Peninsula, where he established a new Umayyad kingdom. However, Abd ar-Rahman I was not the first Muslim to invade Spain; Muslim Berbers had overthrown the Visigoths and established the kingdom of Al-Andalus in the early eighth century. Still, the Umayyads in Spain—known as the Caliphate of Cordoba—retained power until the 1000s. With the decline of the Caliphate, several smaller kingdoms, called “taifas,” claimed control over southern Spain. It was not until 1492, when the Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella declared a holy war against the Spanish Muslims did Muslim control of the regions come to an end. (47)