Before the time of Islam, the Arabian Peninsula was populated by nomadic peoples who claimed to be the descendants of Noah's oldest son, Shem, and thus became known as Semites, or Semitic people. In this way, they shared a common connection with other Semitic peoples in the region, including followers of the Torah, or the Hebrews.
It was also during this time that the Arab tribes who populated the region were caught in a struggle between the Christian Byzantine Empire, inheritors of the Roman Empire, and the Persians to the northeast, whose own empire was based on the religion of Zoroastrianism. Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and many other faiths characterized the religious diversity in the region, and what is more, a mix of each could be found in the Arab population.
Still, most Arabs were predominately polytheistic, following not one god, but many gods. The center of their worship was the city of Mecca, at a site known as the Kabba. It was here that over 300 statues and other idols were kept for worship by the various Arab tribes. Mecca was, even at a time before Islam, a center for Arab worship and devotion, as well as a place of religious pilgrimage known as the Hajj.
The tradition and superstition around the Kabba in Mecca was already centuries old before the time of Islam, and many of the pagans believed it represented the connection between Heaven and Earth - not surprising given that at the center of the Kabba was a meteorite of unknown age that had fallen from the sky.
Historians believe that at this time, Mecca was a city of peace, a place where no tribal disputes were allowed to be discussed, no warfare fought, and no weapons utilized. It was into this world that Islam's prophet was born.
Mohammed was born into a world of polytheism and tribal disunity in the year of 570 CE in the city of Mecca. He lost both parents by the time he was six years old and was raised by one of his uncles.
At the age of 12, Mohammed entered the family business, the caravan trade, and was off on what many believe were journeys to the outside world, including Syria, where he had contact with Christians, Jews, a host of other faiths, and peoples from all over the world who came to the region to trade.
By the age of 25, Mohammed was married for the first time to a wealthy woman of 40 years of age, Khadijah, who was also in the caravan trade. Though he would marry an additional 10 times in his lifetime, it was through Khadijah's influence that Mohammed was exposed to a group of Arabs known as the Hanefites .
What made this tribe unique was the fact they rejected idol worship and polytheism in favor of monotheism. Their religion was not fully formed - rather, they were influenced by both Judaism and Christianity - and they would often retreat to the solitude of caves for prayer and intense meditation, hoping to find a path to the one true God.
It can be safely assumed that this tribe, along with the teachings of Judaism and Christianity, had a strong impact on Mohammed as he searched for his own answers to life and to God. By 610 CE, tradition tells us he had his first vision while meditating in a cave. Upon reporting this vision to Khadijah and the extended family, it was declared by the Hanefite elders that the vision was from God - the one true God, Allah. Mohammed was subsequently declared a prophet and embraced by his community as the last prophet in a long line dating back to the time of Noah.
At first, few listened to Mohammed's teachings outside of his immediate group. As you can imagine, those engaging in idol worship held fast to their beliefs. But Mohammed persisted. For three years, he traveled and ministered to the population of Mecca and surrounding cities. His life was often threatened by those who did not warm to his message. But Mohammed persevered, and in 621 CE, during the annual Hajj, Arab tribes from Medina happened upon Mohammed and were so impressed with his teachings that they also recognized him as a prophet and joined his new religion.
Still, these conversions were few, and Mecca proved to be an unwelcoming place for someone preaching the destruction of polytheism. After a year in the city, Mohammed fled with a small group of converts to Medina, where he was welcomed as both a prophet and political leader. He proved to be an effective leader, helping enrich his small group of followers by raiding the caravans of the polytheists, which was seen as a justifiable action until these groups submitted to the religion of Allah, at which time the raids would stop.
The city of Mecca responded to these raids by sending 1,000 soldiers to punish the Muslims of Medina. In 624 CE, much to the chagrin of the Meccan leadership, the Muslims defeated their army, and the victory was used to strengthen Mohammed's position as a religious leader.
It was also at this time that Mohammed changed the geographical orientation of Muslim prayers from Jerusalem to Mecca. But why? There were many reasons for the change, including the fact that the Jews had rejected Mohammed's claim to prophethood, as had the Christians. What is more, the Kabba was the center of Arab devotion. It may have been a misguided devotion before the arrival of Mohammed, or so the Muslims believed, but it was in Mecca that they believed God made Himself known, where their last prophet was born, and where he would spend the last days of his life.
The wars between Islam and the Arabic infidels would continue as the tribal leaders of Mecca were bent on destroying the Muslims of Medina for reasons of profit, to end the attacks on their caravans, and to stop the teachings against their gods. In this war, victories by the Muslims were chalked up to the will and grace of Allah and defeats and setbacks to the lack of piousness of the Muslims. For the religion of Islam, both victory and defeat helped strengthen its hold on the faithful.
Ultimately, the war came to an end and peace was signed. Mohammed and his Muslims were given permission to return to Mecca and worship at the Kabba once per year. The Kabba now ceased to be a place of idol worship for the Muslims and had become a place of religious devotion.
Unfortunately, the peace would not hold, and Mohammed would lead a group of 10,000 strong to conquer Mecca once and for all. Mecca, long the center of ancient Arab religion, would again be restored as the most important city in the Arab world - this time, the center of Islam.
Based out of Mecca, Mohammed would lead his new religion. His followers would launch raids and attacks on cities in the surrounding areas that they viewed as potential threats to their newly acquired political, economic, and religious power. Islam provided a core of faithful soldiers, strategists, and leaders, and this led to repeated victories and conversions of the surrounding Arab tribes. The words of the Qur'an soon replaced the prayers to the old gods.
After the death of Mohammed in 632 CE, there was no clear line of succession for the leadership of Islam. None of his own sons had survived into adulthood; indeed, the actual number of children he had during his lifetime is disputed by scholars even today. As a result, Islam was split along two competing camps. On the one side, there were those who supported Abu Bakr, long-time friend and confidant of Mohammed, as the rightful leader of the Muslims. Others believed Ali ibn Abi Talib, a cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed, was the rightful successor.
This split in allegiance would eventually lead to a larger schism in Islam, with those proponents of Abu Bakr becoming the Sunnis and those of Ali becoming the Shia. But that was many years away. For now, Islam would remain unified, its teachings codified, and the gains made by Mohammed and his followers solidified. A new religion now joined the ranks of Judaism and Christianity in the Middle East, and neither the region nor the world would ever be the same.
After seeing this video, you should be able to:
- Describe the pre-Islamic world
- Discuss Mohammed's life and the development of Islam
- Recall how the Sunnis and Shia are different