Islamic History – Introduction
Muhammad Qutb gives us the definitive quote on the Islamic view of history: “Islam is the only future hope of humanity; and its victorious emergence out of the present ideological warfare is the only guarantee of man’s salvation.”
Muhammad, the founder and prophet of Islam, was born in circa a.d. 570 into a culture characterized by polytheism and animism. Yet, throughout his merchant career, he likely came into contact with Jewish and Christian monotheism. Muhammad was a spiritual man and encountered many visions. At first he thought they were satanic visions, but his wife, Khadija, persuaded him that the visions were from God. In a.d. 610, Muhammad claimed he had been visited by the angel Gabriel and commissioned to be a prophet of God. His basic message was simple and elegant: There is one God to whom all people must submit and there will be a day of judgment in which all humans will be judged according to their deeds, both good and evil.
Islamic History – Beginnings in Mecca
Islamic history begins in Mecca. Mecca was a great religious, economic, and political power center on the Arabian peninsula in Muhammad’s day. It boasted the Ka’ba (a large black box-like building) that hosted 360 tribal deities. Tribes would make regular pilgrimages to the city, thus bringing great economic wealth to the city’s merchants. But Muhammad’s message contradicted the pantheism of his day: rather than many gods, there was only one, Allah. Inevitably, Muhammad’s teaching led to a clash with Meccan leaders, and the Muslims fled to Medina (then called Yathrib) in a.d. 622. This event is called the Hijra, the migration that began the Muslim era, and forms the starting point for the Islamic calendar.
From early days Muslims began raiding merchant caravans seeking to deliver their wares to Mecca. The raids led to a number of battles, the most famous of which was the Battle of Badr (a.d. 624) in which 324 Muslims defeated a Meccan force three times their number. Naturally, such a victory added to the perception that Islam was indeed God’s will. Two years later, Muslims repelled a Meccan attack on Medina in the Battle of Ahzab (a.d. 627). The following year brought a treaty with Meccan leaders, permitting Muhammad to enter the city as a pilgrim. On January 11, a.d. 629, Muhammad and about 10,000 Muslim warriors captured Mecca without a battle, thus permitting Muhammad to cleanse the Ka’ba of its idols and establish Islam.
Today Islam is a major world religion, boasting a membership of nearly one-fourth of the world’s population. The majority of Muslims, which come from numerous ethnic backgrounds and reside in every country, are not Arabs.
Islamic History – Islamic Diversity after the Death of Muhammad
Islam is a religion and worldview as diverse as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism. Throughout Islamic history various factions with differing convictions and levels of commitment have existed in Islam.
Islamic History – Sunni and Shi’ite
Shortly after Muhammad died (a.d. 632) his followers faced the immediate question of who should succeed him. The conflict resulted in the two major factions of Islam. Those who insisted the successor should be elected by popular vote became the Sunni Muslims, which currently comprise about 80 percent of Muslims worldwide. The Shi’ite Muslims, however, believed that the successor should be someone from the bloodline of Muhammad, a family member or descendant. The Shi’ites, though outnumbered worldwide, are a powerful force among Muslims, especially following the 1979 Iranian revolution when the Ayatollah Khomeini (died 1989) gained control of the country. Shi’ites remain a majority in Iran, and significant communities of Shi’ites persist in Iraq and other countries. While agreeing that no prophets succeed Muhammad, Shi’ites believe in a leader, the Imam, who is gifted by God to guide Muslims. While the Sunnis and Shi’ites agree on the importance of the Qur’an, they have different collections of the Hadith (the traditional actions and sayings of Muhammad and his followers).
Islamic History – Sufism
Sufi Islam historically has expressed the more spiritual side of Islam. While existing from Islam’s earliest days, it was not considered mainstream until the famous Sufi Muslim scholar Al-Ghazali sought spiritual renewal among the Muslim peoples. While orthodox Islam holds that Allah does not reveal himself but merely his will, Sufism advocates seeking a personal experience and oneness with Allah (some even adopt a pantheistic theology). Sufis protested the worldliness of Islam at a time when wealth had been gained through many conquests and religion in general was dry. The Sufis promote a lively religion, invested with spiritual ways and means, and a less legalistic form of Islam. Sufism has been and continues to be a major force in the spread of Islam throughout the world. Jalal al-Din Rumi (died a.d. 1273) is the most well known Sufi poet.
Islamic History – Some Smaller Unorthodox Groups
Islam has many religious offshoots. While orthodox Islam holds that Muhammad was the final prophet in a long succession of prophets, some groups claim that other prophets since Muhammad have come. The Baha’i World Faith was established in 1844 and boasts the prophet Baha’u’allah. The Baha’i claim that their religion is the fulfillment of all religions and that all religions are essentially one. The Nation of Islam (a.k.a., The Black Muslims) also holds that there has been a modern-day prophet: Elijah Muhammad (died A.D. 1975). Beyond this, they teach a polytheistic and racist theology.
Islamic History – Islam is a Worldview
Islam is a comprehensive worldview, as Salam Azzan, the Secretary General of the Islamic Council of Europe, explains,
Islam is a complete way of life. It integrates man with God, awakens in him a new moral consciousness and invites him to deal with all the problems of life— individual and social, economic and political, national and international—in accord with his commitment to God. Islam does not divide life into domains of the spiritual and the secular. It spiritualizes the entire existence of man and produces a social movement to reconstruct human life in the light of principles revealed by God. Prayer and worship in Islam are means to prepare man to fulfill this mission. Islam aims at changing life and producing a new man and a new society, both committed to God and the welfare of mankind. That is why Islam is not a religion in the limited sense of the word; rather it is a complete code of life and a culture-producing factor. Muslim culture profits from all available sources, local and international, but its unique characteristic is that it grows from the foundations of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Hence the distinctiveness of Muslim culture and life in Europe and elsewhere.
Islamic History – Historical Determinism
Like the Christian worldview, Islam affirms that history is not made up of a series of chance happenings. Rather, because Allah created the world, he superintends it throughout time, guiding it toward an expression of his will. Hammuda Abdalati explains, “The world is a becoming entity, created by the will of a Designer and sustained by Him for meaningful purposes. Historical currents take place in accordance with His will and follow established laws. They are not directed by blind chance, nor are they random and disorderly incidents.”3 The phrase historical determinism captures the essence of the Islamic approach to history.