Chapter 7 Islam from its Origins to 1300

South and East of medieval Christian Europe, a second great world religion emerged during the Middle Ages: Islam. Beginning in the Arabian city of Mecca around 600, Islam developed into a world religion that would spread much farther than Christianity did. Arab rule and Islam spread throughout the Middle East, across North Africa, and into southern Europe. Wherever the Islamic faith spread, so did Islamic law and flourishing Islamic trade routes, shared beliefs, and forms of worship. Ultimately the faith and culture of Islam would reach from West Africa to China. By the 15th century, the Islamic cultural zone loomed as a massive rival to the Christian zone. Islam was on the eve of a new golden age as the modern period began in Europe.

Our study of Islam will cover “the rise of Islam among the tribes of seventh century Arabia; the eruption of Arab Muslims out of the Arabian peninsula and their defeat of the two largest and culturally most advanced empires in western Asia, Sasanian Persia [Sasanid = dynasty of Persian ((Iranian)) kings 200-600AD, ruled after Alexander’s Hellenistic Greek dynasty of Seleucids] and Byzantine Rome [the Byzantine Empire]; and the integration of most of the population of the Middle East into a newly constituted Islamic society that had become by the tenth century a world civilization” (Binder 84). Islamic civilization was a crucial development in world history. Islamic civilization has had a profound impact on a large area of the globe spiritually, culturally, politically, intellectually, and economically.


Islam’s Founding Prophet

Muhammad the Messenger of God (570-632) lived six centuries after Christ and twelve centuries after Buddha. Muhammad became the prophet of Islam, the last of the great world religions to emerge in history thus far.

Muhammad was born in Mecca, a busy merchant town in Arabia linked by caravan routes to many cities, for example, Byzantium, Damascus, and Basra. As a center of trade Mecca was somewhat international. Outside of the city, the desert Arabs, nomadic Bedouin tribes, herded their flocks and fought tribal wars. “It was a world not much changed from Jesus’ time, or the time of the Hebrew prophets. It was about to produce a third great religion, one integrally related to Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad never claimed to be the first Prophet—only the last” (Esler 252). In other words, Muslims believe that Moses (Judaism) and Jesus (Christianity) were divine prophets and consider the Old Testament (Bible) a holy text. However they also believe that Muhammad was God’s last and most important prophet who brought God’s final and most important message in the Qur’an.

Muhammad was an orphan who may have picked up some of the basics of the religions of Moses and Jesus from the long distance caravans. When he was forty, the angel Gabriel revealed to Muhammad that he was Allah’s (God’s) messenger and that he should recite Allah’s message. This was followed by subsequent visions over the next 20 years. For millions of Muslims, Muhammad’s visions were God’s final message to humankind—and these messages, initially recited by Muhammad, would ultimately be preserved in the Qur’an in written Arabic. Muhammad preached Islam which means “submission to God.” His followers would be known as Muslims which means “those who submit to God’s law.”

At first Muhammad was only able to convert his family and friends (his wife Khadijah, his friend Abu-Bakr). The merchant leaders of Mecca were not open to Muhammad’s message. Muhammad and his followers moved to the more tolerant town of Medina but he eventually returned to Mecca in 630 and made it the center of Islam and it essential pilgrimage site. Muhammad asked all to join Umma (community based on God’s law). By 632 Islam was accepted throughout the Arabian peninsula and sent ambassadors to Byzantium and Persia.


Islamic Faith and Law

Muhammad preached “the monotheistic worship of Allah, prayer five times a day, fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan, paradise for the faithful, and hellfire for the wicked” (Esler 252.)

“Like other prophets before him, Muhammad also had a social message for his followers. Like Confucius and Buddha, like the Hebrew prophets and Christian preachers, the Prophet of Islam urged believers to seek the path of virtue in this world” (Esler 253.) Muhammad stressed Allah’s concern for the poor and the marginalized and the fundamental unity and equality of all people.

The Qur’an is considered to be ultimate source of knowledge. It teaches both theology and a code of conduct. The Qur’an is seen to be the actual word of God revealed to Muhammad over a twenty-year period. Muhammad had memorized God’s message, but it was written down in Arabic around the time of his death. The Qur’an is the basis of Muslim civilization and teaches obedience to God’s law and faith.

5 Pillars of Islam

1. A profession of faith (shahada). All Muslims must proclaim "There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet." Note here that Muhammed is not God in Muslim theology but rather a spokesperson or mouthpiece for the divine.

2. Prayer (salat). All Muslims pray five times daily while facing the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

3. Alms (zakat). Faith also means outreach. To give thanks and follow the example of Muhammed, Muslims with the economic means must give alms to those who are less fortunate.

4. Fasting (sawm or siyam). Muslims who are physically able are to fast from dawn to dusk during the ninth month (Ramadan) of the Islamic calendar.

5. A pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. At least once in their lives, all Muslims who are able must make a pilgrimage to the Great Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, toward which they have knelt while praying five times daily during their lives. (Chapter seventeen of The Autobiography of Malcolm X offers a vivid account of this pilgrimage, which was life-transforming for him. It was on hajj, he recounts, that he first glimpsed the possibility that people of different races could get along.)


The Spread of Islam

Muhammad’s teachings brought diverse Arabs together and provided a basis for a monumental expansion. In the centuries following Muhammad’s death, his followers would conquer an area larger than the Roman Empire.

Islam spread rapidly through military conquest and conversion, particularly during the great wave of Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries. “During the ten years immediately following the Prophet’s death, from 632 to 642, Arab Muslims erupted out of the Arabian peninsula and conquered Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and western Iran [from the Byzantines and Persians]….To the west, Arab ships sailed into the Mediterranean Sea, previously a ‘Roman lake,’ taking Cyprus, Carthage, Tunis, and Gibraltar, before conquering Spain and raiding southern France” (Binder 86). The Arab Muslims would soon completely take over the rest of the Persian (Sasanian) Empire as they marched east across the Iranian plateau and forced the Persian emperor to flee to the Tang court in China. Soon they would “be meeting the Chinese armies face to face. To the south, Muslim navies sailed to the coasts of western India where in 711 they conquered and occupied the densely populated Hindu-Buddhist society of Sind. Thus began the long and eventful encounter between Islamic and Indic civilizations, during which time Islamic culture would penetrate deeply into India’s economy, political systems, and religious structures.” (Binder 86).

Immediately after Muhammad’s death, he was succeeded by the First Four Califs. Islam expanded greatly under their rule. The first calif, chosen by the elders of the Islamic community, was one of Muhammad’s earliest converts, Abu-Bakr. The next two, Umar and Uthman were, like Abu-Bakr, also chosen by elders in the Islamic community. The fourth caliph, Ali, was a relative of Muhammad. Shiites believe that only the fourth caliph was a true caliph because they believe only descendants of the Prophet can lead the Islamic state. They are a minority. Sunnis, who comprise 85% of the Muslim population, believe the caliph should be chosen by the consent of the community. While Islam expanded under the first four caliphs, the Arab dynasty of the Umayyads dominated Islam during its major expansion phase from 661-770. The Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids, ending Arab domination within Islam. The Abbasid dynasty of caliphs (750-1258) claimed descent from Abbas, the uncle of Muhammad. The Abbasids moved the capital to Bagdad (built 762) and oversaw the golden age of Islam until 1258. The Abbasids Empire provided security, patronage, and an institutional framework that encouraged the flourishing of cultural developments based on cultural synthesis. During this time Muslims made extremely important contributions in science, literature, and philosophy. See Binder pages 92-94.


Islam’s Golden Age

Baghdad was an international center of learning and scholarship. Scholars, of all faiths, came from many nations to study here. Islamic scholars translated the texts of ancient Greece in Arabic during this period. Whereas the Christian Church saw the Greek thinkers’ emphasis on reason blasphemous—the idea that rational laws governed the universe not an omnipotent divine being was threatening—it was Muslim scholars who recognized and preserved the wisdom of the Greeks. It can be said that the European Renaissance began in Baghdad where the Hellenistic world was translated into Arabic. Islamic scholars built on the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Indians especially and excelled in medicine, science, mathematics, and philosophy.

Islam not only united a large portion of the world into a single community through a shared faith and shared intellectual traditions, but also trade was perhaps the crucial glue that held this extensive community together by spreading ideas as well as materials and forging international ties. The spread of goods like paper and wheat would have extremely profound consequences for human civilization.



Ultimately Islam would spread from Western Africa to China. Today, the majority of the world's Muslims are not Arabs. More than two-thirds of the world's 900 million Muslims live outside the Middle East. Over four-fifths of all Muslims are non-Arabs, with the majority of the worldwide community living in South and Southeast Asia. Indonesia has largest population of any country in the world, followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. (Binder 96)

“From the perspective of global history, perhaps the most significant theme of early Islam is the evolution of a relatively parochial Arab cult into a world civilization, indeed history’s first truly global civilization. For the Arab conquests inaugurated a thousand-year era. Lasting from the seventh to the seventeenth century, when all the major civilizations of the Old World—Greco-Roman, Irano-Semitic, Sanskritic, Malay-Javanese, and Chinese—were for the first time brought into contact with one another by and within a single overarching civilization. What is more, Muslims synthesized elements from those other civilizations—especially Greek, Persian, and Indian—with those of their Arabian heritage to evolve a distinctive civilization that proved one of the most vital and durable the world has ever seen.” (Binder 89)


Malcolm X: An Islamic Perspective


Atlantic Slavery and Islam

A small but significant proportion of African slaves, some estimate 10 percent, were Muslim. Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864), was born in Western Africa in the Muslim state of Futa Toro (on the south bank of the Senegal River in present-day Senegal). He was a Muslim scholar and trader who, for reasons historians have not uncovered, found himself captive and enslaved. After a six-week voyage, Omar arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in about 1807. About four years later, he was sold to James Owen of North Carolina's Cape Fear region. In 1819 a white Protestant North Carolinian wrote to Francis Scott Key, the composer of The Star Spangled Banner, to request an Arabic translation of the Bible for Omar, and apparently Key sent one. Historians dispute how much the African Muslim leaned toward Christianity in his final years, but Omar's notations on the Arabic bible, which offer praise to Allah, suggest that he retained much of his Muslim identity, as did some other first-generation slaves whose names have been lost to us. (Omar's Arabic bible, which has recently been restored, is housed in the library of Davidson College in North Carolina.)