Muhammad, Islam, and the World: An Overview

Each day nearly 1.2 billion Muslims face in the direction of Mecca, a city in Saudi Arabia, when they say their prayers. They offer these prayers not once but five times daily. Over two million Muslims journey, moreover, each year to this sacred city in pilgrimage. All Muslims hope to make this journey at least once before they die. They live in 50 countries, and their religion is second only to Christianity in the size of its membership.

Almost all Americans know that a handful of Muslim extremists captured four commercial airliners, crashing them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D. C., and in a field in rural Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, killing thousands of innocent people. Most Americans also know that these fanatics were not representative of the vast majority of Muslims or the Islamic religion. However, few Americans fully understand the Islamic religion or its Muslim followers. Typical questions asked by American students about Muslims are: What do they believe? Can Muslims and people of other religions ever get along in the world?

These are difficult questions to answer simply and with precision. In order to begin to answer these important questions, we have to know something about the Prophet Muhammad and the historic development of Islam. Who was this inspirational leader and how did his preaching and life become the basis of one of the world's major religions? How, moreover, did Islam evolve from a small band of followers into a global religion that became one of the greatest empires of the world.

What All Muslims Believe

Put simply, all Muslims believe that the one true God worshipped by Jews and Christians revealed his words to a prophet, Muhammad, who lived in the historic land of Arabia. Muslims believe that Muhammad was the final prophet sent by God. According to Muslim tradition, at the age of 40 Muhammad began receiving revelations from God through the angel Gabriel. He recited them to his followers, who memorized them and carefully copied them down. These revelations continued sporadically throughout his life. In the beginning, they warned people of a coming Day of Judgment and about Heaven and Hell, but they went on to include stories of other religious figures, some of them found in the Bible, such as Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, and Jesus, and established many of the religious practices and social norms that Muslims still follow today. Many of the revelations also direct Muhammad on how to respond to various problems that he faced in establishing Islam. These revealed words were collected into a sacred book, known as the Qur'an, which means "The Recitation."

Muslims look to this book as their guide in life. It is the basis of all their principles and values. They also study the Qur'an for what it can tell them about the life of Muhammad. How Muhammad lived his life as God's Prophet is, for Muslims, the model of how all Muslims should live and worship. They believe that Muhammad was God's messenger and that the example of his life, or Sunna, should be followed by all in order to merit heaven. All that Muhammad said, did, or allowed to happen is considered by Muslims to have been inspired by God, and thus both his actions and the Qur'an are the basis of Islamic law. The word "islam" means "surrender" to the will of God and comes from the Arabic root word "salam," which means "peace" or "salvation." The word Muslim simply means "one who surrenders to God."

The Prophet Muhammad

According to Muslim sources, Muhammad Ibn Abdullah was born in the year 570, but was orphaned at an early age. The city of his birth was Mecca in Arabia, a thriving crossroads of international commerce with trade routes connecting it to India, Africa, China, and Malaysia. Working as a young boy in the caravan trade, Muhammad eventually became the business manager for a wealthy widow, Khadija, whom he married. She was aged 40 and he was 25 years old when they wed. Over their lifetime together, she gave birth to two sons (who died in infancy) and four daughters.

Although respected for his knowledge and his business success, Muhammad was something of a loner and loved to go off by himself into the surrounding hills to think about the meaning of life. While in a cave one night, Muslims believe that Muhammad was visited by the angel Gabriel, who commanded him to "Recite." Muhammad was astounded and protested that he could not. But the angel Gabriel insisted, and finally Muhammad began to gush forth in speech the words of God. From this point on, Muhammad recited divine revelations for the next 23 years of his life.

Before he died, Muhammad would be recognized as a great prophet in Arabia, but the first 13 years after the visitation from Gabriel were very difficult for him and his followers. Most of the tribal leaders in Mecca opposed Muhammad's warnings from a monotheistic (only one) God. They believed in many gods and knew that Muhammad's teaching would threaten their power. They were especially angry because Muhammad's message of equality and individual accountability to God threatened the tribal system of hierarchy and group loyalty. And his message also challenged their hold on the Kaaba, or the religious shrine, in Mecca that housed their many tribal idols which, as a center of pilgrimage, made them rich.

Over the years, the oppression of Muhammad and his followers grew more harsh. Eventually the tribal leaders of Mecca hatched a plan to kill Muhammad. But before they could assassinate him, he moved a few hundred of his followers to Medina, a city about 200 miles to the north of Mecca. This move, known as the hijra in Muslim tradition, enabled Muhammad to emerge as the head of an Islamic city-state, and marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. There Muhammad lived for the remaining ten years of his life, establishing the first rules for an Islamic society, continuing to recite the growing Qur'an, and fighting against Mecca, who sent large armies to defeat him on three separate occasions. When they could not overcome him by force, the Meccans finally signed a treaty with Muhammad. But about two years later, Muhammad declared the treaty void after an incident between the Meccans and a tribe allied to him left several of his allies killed. Muhammad marched upon Mecca with a large army, conquering it after meeting no resistance and extending Muslim rule over all of Arabia. Central to his new authority was his uniting of all Arab tribes under the religion of Islam.

The Expansion of Islam

Immediately after Muhammad's death a civil war broke out among many of the Arab tribes who wanted to break off from the newly created Islamic state. Once these rebellions were put down, Islam embarked succession of political and military success that resulted in the establishment of a vast empire and the flourishing of theology, medicine, science, technology, art, philosophy, and literature.

Two great empires grew during this time. The first, called the Umayyad Empire, lasted for about 90 years (661-750). Much of the early military expansion of Islam happened during the Umayyad Period. The Umayyads conquered all of the Persian empire and half the Roman (Byzantine) empire. They spread across North Africa, conquered Spain and Portugal, and marched across Europe until they were finally repulsed in the heart of France by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732. In the East, they extended the empire's borders to the Indian subcontinent. The Umayyads made Damascus their capital and established a centralized, Arab-dominated kingdom with a strong civil service that made Arabic the language of government and eventually the main language of most of North Africa and the Middle East.

Though the Umayyads relied on Islam for legitimacy and as a justification for their conquests, and despite their accomplishments, by 720 anti-Umayyad sentiment was widespread. Non-Arab Muslims resented their second class status under Umayyad rule, which they saw as contrary to Islamic egalitarianism. Others saw them as corrupt usurpers, and many pious Muslims viewed the court's extravagant lifestyle as foreign to the example established by Muhammad.

In 747, an opposition movement lead by a freed Abbasid slave overthrew the Umayyads, establishing the long-lived Abbasid empire (750-1258) with Baghdad as its capital. As the Abbasid's came into power under the banner of Islam, they made great efforts to publicly align their government with Islam. They became patrons of Islamic philosophy, scholarship, art and science. As another departure from the past, Abbasid political success was not based on conquest, but on trade, commerce, industry, and agriculture. Islamic law, the Sharia, was developed during this time and remains their greatest contribution to Islam. To see a map of the Islamic World c. 750, click here. [link to map of Islam World in 750]

This golden age began to come to an end as the Abbasids encountered various military threats, both from within and without. Abbasid political unity fell apart as various local governors began to assert leadership as heads of semiautonomous states.

It was also during this time too that the Christian West launched a series of military attacks in Europe reconquer Spain, Italy, and Sicily, while also launching a series of crusades or "holy wars" to capture the holy land of Palestine (1095 to 1453) and the sacred city of Jerusalem.

In the first Crusade, the Christians stormed Jerusalem in 1099, killing all Muslims, women and children alike, an event that is still etched deeply in the collective memory of Muslims. Muslim holy sites were desecrated or destroyed, and the Dome of the Rock was converted into a church. This Christian rule of Jerusalem lasted less than 100 years, however, before a Muslim army drove out the Christians. Unlike the Christian conquerors, the Muslims spared the lives of all civilians and noncombatants. For the next two centuries, the Muslims and the Christians fought a series of holy wars for control of the holy land. The fighting came to a stop when a Turkish Muslim army conquered the Byzantium Empire in 1453, and renamed its capital (Constantinople) Istanbul. This city became the seat of the Ottoman Empire.

The Abbasids were also challenged from the east during the time of the Crusades. In the thirteenth century, the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan poured out of Central Asia, destroying Baghdad and slaughtering its Muslim inhabitants, including the Abbasid rulers.

Out of the demise of the Abbasid empire, three smaller Muslim empires eventually emerged: the Ottoman Turkish Empire centered in Istanbul and controlling major portions of North Africa, the Arab world, and Eastern Europe; the Persian Safavid empire, with its capital in Isfahan; and the Mughal Empire centered in Deli and encompassing most of the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). The political stability of these states contributed to a new cultural florescence in each of these empires.

Eventually, these empires lost ground to European industrialism, military might, and colonial aspirations. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War One, the period of Empire in Islam came to an end. Today Islam exists within over 50 separate countries, and in many cases is subsumed within the political and cultural norms of these diverse societies.

The Modern Islamic World

Over the last 100 years, some 50 Muslim states have come into existence, including some of the most populated nations in the world, such as Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Many other Muslim states, however, are very small countries, like Brunei and Kuwait. Some have strong governments; some are endowed with great natural resources, like Libya, Turkmenistan, and Saudi Arabia. A few have very developed economies, such as Malaysia-which is one of the world's leading exporters of industrial products. Some are secular states such as Turkey, while others are theocracies-meaning that there is a close connection between the religious dictates of Islam and the national government, like in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Almost all of these Muslim countries were ruled at one time or another by western colonial powers. The French and the British dominated Muslim states in much of Africa, Asia, and the Arab world. The Dutch held as a colony most of what became Muslim Indonesia. Almost all of present-day East Africa, the Philippines, Malaysia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia were recently controlled by Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Russia (or the former Soviet Union). The modern Muslim state of Afghanistan, for example, was created as a buffer state between British India and the holdings of Czarist Russia in Central Asia. The control by Israel of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is, in the opinion of many Muslims, the last example of colonial control over Muslim lands.

This colonization of Muslim lands began with the European conquest of India and Africa in the nineteenth century. After World War One, the victorious European powers divided up the Arab territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire. After World War Two, modern Muslim states began to emerge as France and England granted independence to most of their colonial holdings. Sometimes the withdrawal of the colonial powers was peaceful, and sometimes it was very bloody, such as in Algeria. By the mid 1970s, most of the former Muslim colonies had become independent nations.

During the three hundred years of European dominance over the Muslim world, many Muslims sought to embrace the Western ways of behavior and thought. Others wanted to apply the principles of Islam to all of life, in part as a way of supporting national and religious identity. They wanted to have a union of religion and the state, similar to the classic age when Muhammad lived as the ruler of Arabia.

In some of the new Muslim countries, the people rose up in revolution against various corrupt rulers who identified too closely with the West. This happened in Iran in 1979, when the Islamic leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, overthrew the Shah of Iran. The war of liberation fought in the 1980s by the Islamic people of Afghanistan against the rule of their country by the Soviet Union is another example. After defeating the Soviet Union, the people of Afghanistan fought a bloody Civil War among themselves. In the mid-1990s, a small group of fundamentalist Islamic students (Taliban) seized power and proceeded to rule Afghanistan according to a strict and puritanical application of the Islamic code.

The Taliban rulers of Afghanistan separated men and women outside the home, shut down all schools for girls, and required women to be fully covered in public--showing not even their eyes. These Muslim extremists also banned women from working or driving and ordered all men to grow beards and to pray five times a day. They punished theft by cutting off the hands and fingers of convicted offenders, stoned men and women to death for adultery, and banned television, films, and music.

The Taliban rulers also supported terrorist attacks against the West, offering shelter and support for the radical fundamentalist and terrorist Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States attacked the Taliban leadership and the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan, driving them from power.

Today, Muslim fanatics dominate only a few Muslim nations. Secular dictators rule other Muslim countries, such as in Iraq, where the Saddam Hussein has killed many Muslims (mainly Shi'ites) who he regards as a threat to his regime. Still others, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are Muslim monarchies sympathetic to the West.

But for all their variety, large numbers of Muslims resent America's power and its foreign policy, which always seems to favor the claims of Israel over the Palestinians. They resent the bombardment of their cultures with offensive messages about the status of Islamic women. They don't like what appears to be hypocrisy on America's part, especially our "we-are-better-than-you" attitude in foreign policy. They think that the U.S. exaggerates the extent of Arab violence toward Israel without condemning the much larger number of Palestinian civilians killed by Israel. The majority of people questioned in a recent survey in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Lebanon said that the Palestinian question was the most important issue to them in politics. They think the U. S. is wrong to impose sanctions against Iraqi children while doing nothing to hold India or North Korea to a similar standard. And they very much resent the way most Americans see little difference between the average Muslim and militant Islamic terrorists. For these reasons, some Muslims around the world admire Osama bin Laden-not for his beliefs, but for his standing up to the United States.