Origins of Islam

Islam is often referred to as a religion of peace. The term Islam means submission to the will of God. With an estimated following of close to 1.8 billion adherents globally, Islam is the second most popular religion in the world. The Islamic faith is distinctively monotheistic and is also categorized among the Abrahamic religions besides Christianity and Judaism. Historians and scholars date the Inception of Islam from the 7th century AD following divine revelations to its founder Prophet Muhammad.

The Narrative

Our historical account on Islam begins in the ancient city of Mecca where, in the tribe of Quraysh, clan of Banu Hashim, a divinely historical figure was born. Named in Islam as the last among a long line of notable prophets; Prophet Muhammad was born around 570 AD to Abdullah Ibn Abd’ al-Muttaib and Amina bint Wahb. His father Abdullah Ibn Abd’ al-Muttaib died six months prior to his birth.

Even though Prophet Muhammad was not born in an affluent family, his tribe, the Quraysh tribe was a prominent tribe; the Quraysh were successful merchants in charge of trade along the West Coast of Arabia, Yemen to the south, and Syria to the North.

By virtue of being born in a tribe of outstanding merchants, Prophet Muhammad, as years went by, soon became a Merchant himself plying trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. During his stint as a merchant, the young Prophet Muhammad built a reputation as a trustworthy merchant which earned him the title “Al-Amin” (to imply the trustworthy one).

It so happened that a female merchant and widower known as Khadija bint Khuwaylid learnt of Prophet Muhammad’s reputation as an honest merchant and soon asked him to come work for her; Muhammad’s job description according to Khadija was to oversee safe passage of her caravans to Syria. Muhammad agreed to this job offer and immensely succeeded at it. Impressed by how Muhammad carried himself in the discharge of his tasks Khadija proposed for his hand in marriage to which Mohammed consented. Ultimately they were married.

Revelations

It is worth mentioning that in the pre-Islamic era, Arabia was predominantly a polytheistic society. In spite of the community’s pagan ways Prophet Muhammad had adopted a unique lifestyle of spiritual approach by taking a few weeks off every year to meditate near the caves in Mount Hira. During one of Prophet Muhammad’s visits to the Mountains, accounts reveal that an angel of God (Angel Gabriel) appeared to him and ordered him to recite verses of the Quran; “Proclaim-in the name of thy Lord, Who created man out of a mere clot of congealed blood.”

Initially it is stated that Muhammad was disturbed by these visions, voices, and revelations. But through assurances from the divine spirit, together with consolations from his wife Khadijah, he embraced the revelations and became more open to receiving them. These revelations became the basis of the Islamic holy book; The Holy Quran. The revelations emphasized on worship of only one God which stood in contrast with the polytheistic beliefs and practices within his community at that time.

Slowly Muhammad began preaching based on the revelations he received which attracted a small number of followers at first with the numbers growing steadily. Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual progress soon faced opposition from some sections of the community; his preaching stood for worship of only one God, Allah, which was in stark contrast with the community’s style of worship of several deities.

Making matters worse for Prophet Muhammad was that his clan, the Banu Hashim was the custodian of the Pagan gods whom several merchants made pilgrimages to offer their obeisance. Incidentally, there was the inherent fear that preaching against the pagan gods would bring their wrath thus affecting trade. It is to be remembered that Muhammad’s tribe the Qurayshi were an outstanding group of merchants thus the ramifications of his preaching it was feared, would hit home and would hit hard.

At first a diplomatic approach was tried through offers of gifts and other niceties to Prophet Muhammad for him to change tune and tone but he remained unflinching in his convictions. When diplomatic approach failed he became ostracized by the community, they could however not inflict physical harm on him as he enjoyed protection given by his influential wife and that of his uncle Abu Talib, the clan chief.

Following the death of his wife and that of his uncle, Prophet Muhammad, for fear of his life and that of his followers migrated to Medina in 622 AD. This period came to be known as Hijra and marks the first year of the Islamic calendar. In Medina, Prophet Muhammad continued to receive divine revelations and preaching in favor of Allah, the one true God. By this time he had attracted a solid following on his side.

The conflict in religious ideologies and principles between Prophet Muhammad and the Qurayshi tribe continued for several years. These conflicts led to violent clashes among the factions involved ultimately leading to the surrender of Mecca. Prophet Muhammad and his now large number of followers made a return to Mecca destroying all the pagan gods in the process and continuing to preach the message of Islam.

Death and Succession (the caliphate)

Following Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, a series of leaders’ succeeded him through a system referred to as a Caliphate. Initially following the prophet’s death, disputes arose among his followers on who was to succeed him. Some felt that succession was to be done through due process of followers electing whom they deemed fit to lead them. Others however, were of the opinion that succession should be hierarchical in that a close blood male in the family should be elected to succeed the Prophet. This dispute led to a split of two factions now known as the Sunnis and the Shiites.

The Shiite were advocating for a successor of the Prophet to be of direct lineage (in this case Ali), the Sunnis on other hand stood for the Prophet’s close and most trusted allies to succeed him (in this case Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman) and Ali to come in as the fourth caliph (successor).This split informs the factions within the Islamic community today as some acknowledge all the four caliphs whereas others acknowledge Ali as the first spiritual successor to the prophet.

Influences

In the reign of the first four caliphs, Arab Muslims subjugated vast regions in the Arab world including Iran, Iraq, Syria and Palestine. The conquests spread throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. The caliphate system reigned for centuries evolving into the Ottoman Empire which maintained a firm grip on vast regions in the Middle East from around 1517-1917.

The Ottoman Empire as holders of the Caliphate title did not only train their offences on the Middle Eastern region; from around 1354, the Empire traversed into Europe conquering the Balkans thus transforming itself into a transcontinental Empire.

At the height of its power in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire had a firm control from South Eastern to Central Europe, parts of Eastern Europe, Western Asia, North Africa, and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa (Horn of Africa). With control on these regions the Ottoman Empire became a multilingual, multinational empire.

The Ottoman Empire accommodated religious diversity through granting religious groups under their control a significant degree of autonomy. The Ottomans however, also developed a system referred to as devshirme where they forcefully enlisted and converted young Christian boys into Islam, more so the Balkans. This they did in an effort to build an elite military corps.

During the same period in South Asia, Dara Shukoh of the Mughal Empire made attempts of having Hindus acknowledged as “people of the book” (besides Jews and Christians). He even went to an extent of creating and developing his own religion, din ilahi that combined Islam and Hindu values and practices. While his efforts proved futile, a more or less similar structure was developed in later years that led to birth and creation of Sikhism in Punjab.

Since its inception to date, Islam continues to develop and expand globally bringing it into contact with a host of other religious and non religious groups. The legacy of its relations to these groups is rich and complex. Rich in the sense that the number of Muslim conversions is on the rise and complex in regards to intolerance and acts of violence by some groups linked to the faith.

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