Published: 00:00 GMT Standard Time - Friday 29 January 2010
What is Islam?
What is Islam?
Please Note: This article was originally published in the November/December 2006 Barnabas Aid Magazine. It formed part of a series of articles explaining the basic background to Islam and some of it's key concepts. It also constituted part of the resource material for "The Other Nine" campaign.
What does “Islam” mean?
The Arabic word Islam means “submission” in the sense of submitting to the will of God (Allah in Arabic) i.e. his will as defined by Islam.
Muhammad and the origins of Islam
The standard Muslim teaching on the origin of Islam is as follows. Islam was founded in the early seventh century in Arabia by Muhammad, a merchant born in the city of Mecca. According to the sources (which are all Muslim) Muhammad was born in 570 or 571. He was employed by a wealthy widow called Khadija to manage her caravan trade, work which involved travelling and gave him the opportunity to meet with Jews and Christians. When he was 25 Muhammad married Khadija, who was then aged 40. They had seven children, all of whom died young except for a daughter called Fatima. After 25 years of marriage Khadija died, and Muhammad went on to marry a further 12 wives.
Marriage to Khadija made Muhammad a man of some importance, and enabled him to fi nd time to meditate on religious matters. By the time he was about 40, he had become very concerned about the pagan beliefs of his fellow Arabs. He began to spend time meditating in a cave on a mountain a few miles from Mecca. During these periods of meditation, he believed that the angel Gabriel appeared to him and gave him messages to preach to the world. These supposed “revelations” were gathered together later by his followers and became the Qur’an.
Although most of the people of Mecca rejected Muhammad’s preaching, he gradually gathered a small band of followers, some of whom were his relatives. By 613 there were probably about 50 Muslims.
The hostile opposition of the Meccans eventually led Muhammad to send his followers to seek asylum elsewhere. Some went to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) in 613-5. Later, in 622, Muhammad and most of his followers fled to a city about 250 miles north of Mecca, which became known as Medina.
Muhammad himself was amongst those who went to Medina. He was warmly welcomed by the citizens, who were longing for a strong leader to unite them. The year of Muhammad’s migration (hijra) from Mecca to Medina was 622. The hijra was such a turning point in Muhammad’s career that it has become the starting date of the Islamic calendar (see below).
Many Muslims view the hijra as the first of a series of clearly defined stages in their political quest to establish an Islamic state modelled on the example of what Muhammad did; for such Muslims, migration can be the first part of the process of Islamisation.
Muhammad soon became the supreme ruler of Medina – effectively statesman, legislator and judge. In 623 he began sending his followers out to raid the trading caravans from Mecca, and within a few months he was leading these raids himself. Many tribes converted to Islam to avoid being attacked by the Muslim armies. The military power of the Muslim community in Medina increased. The Meccans surrendered to them and Muhammad entered Mecca victoriously, destroyed the pagan idols in its sanctuary (the kaba) and turned it into the centre of Islam.
How the faith developed
Muhammad continued to receive more “revelations” after he moved to Medina. However the content of these “revelations” and of his preaching was somewhat different from what he had preached in Mecca.
For example, in Mecca Muhammad had preached that Muslims should be friendly towards Jews and Christians, even recognising the validity of their faiths. He had told Muslims to face Jerusalem when they prayed.
In Medina he became increasingly hostile towards Jews and Christians, and told his followers that they should now face Mecca when they prayed.
It was during his time in Medina that Muhammad established Friday as the day for corporate worship and introduced the annual month of fasting. He also taught that the Qur’an was God’s fi nal revelation to mankind, and superior to all previous revelations.
By the time Muhammad died in 632 the Muslim armies had conquered virtually the whole of the Arabian Peninsula, although the degree of Islamic control varied from place to place. After his death, his successors continued his programme of military expansion.