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A Brief History

Suggestion: A brief history of the Muslim faith and the Quran and a discussion of its differences and similarities to Christianity and the Bible…

Some questions to get us thinking about Islam:

    1. Are all Muslims Arabs?

    2. What is the most populous Muslim nation?

    3. What does the term Islam mean?

    4. Do Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews?

I. Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam.

Islam as a religion can be traced to their prophet, Muhammad, who lived from about 570-632 AD. He was a trader from the Arabian city of Mecca (or Makkah, in west-central Saudi Arabia) who grew increasingly spiritual in his adulthood. At the age of 40 he was on a retreat in a cave outside Mecca when he received his first revelation as the angel Gabriel (or Jibreel) appeared to him. Muhammad received a number of revelations, and three years after these began he began preaching to the locals, who were mostly polytheistic and kept idols for worship. Muhammad preached that there is only one God (Allah), that there was to be no idolatry, that there was to be complete submission to God in all of life. Because of his revelations, Muhammad was considered a prophet, and came to be thought of as the last and greatest of the line of prophets. The religion revealed to Muhammad was thought of as a restoration of the true religion which had come through the Jews and Christians, but the Jews and Christians had corrupted the holy books as well as the message. Therefore the great characters of the Bible, such as Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and even Jesus, are revered by Islam as prophets of God that taught the true way of Islam.

After Muhammad began preaching, he was not well received by the residents of Mecca. He and his small but growing band of followers were treated badly and basically run out of town. In 622 Muhammad took his followers to Medina, about 280 miles to the north, an emigration that is called “hijra,” marked by Muslims as the beginning of their calendar (Muslims follow a 12 month lunar calendar of 354 days; this is currently the Muslim year 1431 AH, or “al-hijra”). In Medina, Muhammad became a leader of note, uniting various warring tribes and growing thousands of adherents to his religious way. They continued to fight with the Meccan tribes, until finally Muhammad was returned to Mecca victorious, having united most of the Arabian peninsula under his new religion and law before he died.

Muhammad continued to receive revelations throughout his life, and these were written down by his closest followers. These written revelations were collected into the Qur’an (or Koran), the holiest book of Islam. There were also writings of Muhammad’s sayings and customs, known as the Hadith, which also are very important to Islam and the establishing of Islamic customs and laws. Based on all these writings, Muslims seek to form an Islamic society, which is referred to as Shariah law.

II. Subsequent history of the Islamic movement.

After the death of Muhammad, there were many leadership disputes, and a series of his closest companions ruled as caliphs and continued to expand the territory and influence of Islam into Persia and the Middle East (some of the leadership disputes resulted in the major division between Shia and Sunni Muslims, the two main branches of Islam, which divide still exists in very pronounced ways culturally and politically). Dynasties of leaders took over from the caliphs, and by 750 AD Muslims controlled a massive territory from the Indus valley in the East (including what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan), all the way through North Africa to Spain. They filled much of the power void that had been created by the crumbling of the Roman Empire, and these territories that had once been largely Christian were converted (sometimes forcibly) to Islam. Those who wished to remain as Christians or Jews were allowed property and social civil rights, but were required to pay an additional tax.

After 750 AD, Islam enjoyed its “golden age” culturally for about 500 years. Wealth poured through the various empires through trade, schools of learning were developed, and much of the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans was passed along through Islamic sources. In fact, one of the great spurs for what is called the European Renaissance was Italian scholars and Christians relearning the traditions of Western Civilization from Islamic scholars. As Christians in Europe regained some power, they often waged battles against the Islamic frontier territories. The Crusades were organized Christian religious military campaigns, usually called by popes, which often sought to free formerly Christian territories in the Middle East and the Holy Land from Muslim control. The memory of the Crusades as Christian attacks on their territories lingers very large in the Islamic mind to this day. This is especially true in that Islamic doctrine taught that once a territory was dedicated to Islam it could never revert to the control of unbelievers—so when that happens, it is always a sore spot and point of continual contention.

From the Middle Ages to the modern era, the empires of Islam underwent general decline as Western European cultures grew in power and influence. European powers like Spain, France, and Great Britain colonized areas once controlled by Muslims. The largest remaining Middle Eastern power was the Ottoman Empire, ruled from what is today Turkey, and covering much of the Middle East and Arabia. But, Islam also continued to spread further east into Asia, becoming less an exclusively Arab religion and more of a global one. In WWI the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany, and at the conclusion of the war was conquered by the British and French allies, and numerous new nations were carved out of ancient tribal territories, often with uneasy balances of power. With the rise of the modern age of petroleum and massive deposits of oil discovered throughout the Middle East, Muslim fortunes began to rise. But this economic activity involves friction with non-Islamic people, and the competing forces within the Muslim world have contributed to the sometimes volatile geopolitical situation we find ourselves in today.