Islam is a monotheistic faith and one of the largest religions in the world. With a total population of almost 1.5 billion followers, it is also the fastest growing. [i] The reason for this steady rise is not only the increasing population in Muslim countries, but also the growing number of people who are turning to Islam, a phenomenon that has recently gained momentum, especially after the attacks of September 11th when the religion was put under the spotlight. [ii] However, despite all of this, questions that are often asked are, how did Islam rise to become one of the most represented group in modern times? Where did it originate and how did it all start? In order to answer these questions, we must go back more than 1400 years and trace the life of man, who almost single handedly changed the dynamics of this world.
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In the year 570 AD, Muhammad bin Abdullah was born into a noble family that belonged to a clan of the Quraish, the ruling tribe of modern day Mecca. The city was home to the Kabah, a holy shrine, which attracted thousands of people every year from nearby lands who would come and offer pilgrimage. Mecca soon became an important religious center and a financial hub, linking the Arabian Peninsula with powerful empires such as the Ethiopians and the Byzantines. [iii] As a result, the city became dominated by several influential families, among whom the Quraish were preeminent.
Muhammad’s father, Abdullah bin Abdul Muttalib, died before the boy was born. He was raised by his widow mother until the age of six when she too passed away, leaving him under the care of his paternal grandfather. After his death, the orphan was consigned to his uncle, Abu Talib, who took Muhammad in as his own son. As was customary, Muhammad was sent to live for a year or two with a Bedouin family that resided in the desert outskirts of Mecca. This period of his life had important and lasting implications on Muhammad. In addition to enduring the hardships of desert life, he acquired a taste for the rich language of the locals, whose speech was their proudest art. He also learned the patience and forbearance of the herdsmen, whose life of solitude he first shared and then later came to understand and appreciate. [iv]
From his early youth, Muhammad was famous for his honesty and truthfulness. He was respected by everyone and was considered one of the most reliable people in Mecca. The people of Quraish honored him with the title of ‘Al-Amin’ meaning ‘the trustworthy’ and this purity of his nature increased as he grew older. [v] Muhammad also seemed to possess an inner knowledge that other people did not. He would refuse to worship the countless idols and gods that were central to pre-Islamic life in Mecca and would rather spend countless hours in meditation by himself, trying to seek true knowledge.
When Muhammad reached his early twenties, he started working for a woman who went by the name of Khadija bint Khuwalid. She was a widow but was known for being a rich and successful merchant. Muhammad used to actively engage in leading her trade caravans up north, making handsome profits every time he did so. Khadija was so deeply impressed by his work ethics that she sent him a proposal of matrimony which Muhammad happily accepted. Even though Khadija was fifteen years older than him, the marriage proved to be very successful. Muhammad had gained a companion who was always there for him whenever he needed moral support and comfort.
Muhammad grew more and more spiritually restless as the days went by and he started increasing the time he spent in meditation. In order to get away from the troubles and vices that existed within the city, he chose a spot in the hills that surrounded Mecca. The cave where he used to pray was known as ‘Hira’ and according to popular Islamic belief, this was where Muhammad first received the message of Islam and where his journey as a Prophet of God began. [vi] The angel Gabriel came to Muhammad with the following revelation:
“Read in the name of your Lord who created; Created man from a clot of blood; Read and your Lord is the most Beneficent; Who taught man by the pen; Taught man what he knew not” (Quran 96: 1-5) [vii]
These were the first revealed verses of the Islamic book, the Quran and since then Muhammad stopped retreating in the Cave of Hira and took upon himself the duty of spreading the message of God.
At first, Muhammad only preached to his wife and close friends. But as more revelations enjoined him to proclaim the oneness of God universally, his target circle grew; at first the poor and the slaves, but later, also the more prominent people of Mecca. However, not everyone accepted what he had to say and even members of Muhammad’s own clan denied him openly. The opposition persecuted and tortured him and his early followers in every possible manner. But this did not deter Muhammad away from his mission but rather it strengthened and sharpened his resolve to spread the light of Islam. The Quraish had always held their idols in high regards and therefore found it difficult to come to terms with belief in one unseen God, which was one of the pinnacle pillars that Muhammad’s religion was based on.
As Muslims grew in number, the severity of punishment of the local leaders also increased. They boycotted him and his followers from every kind of trade and transaction, so much so that they had to go without proper food and drink for many weeks. Soon, the opposition to Muhammad reached such a high pitch that, fearful for their safety, he sent some of his adherents to the Christian ruler of Abyssinia asking for protection. [viii] Before long, the fame of Muhammad had spread to almost every part of the Arabian Peninsula. A group of people from Yathrib, modern day Medina, met Muhammad and entered into a contract with the Muslims. When the persecutions in Mecca increased and life there became unbearable for the Muslims, the people of Yathrib invited the Prophet and his companions to migrate to their city. [ix] Muhammad accepted their invitation and this emigration from Mecca to Medina marked the beginning of an important Islamic era.
The Muslims who migrated from Mecca were called the ‘Muhajirs’ while the people of Medina who received them with open arms came to be known as the ‘Ansars’. It was here that Muhammad gradually laid the foundation of an Islamic state. Many of teachings of the Prophet in Medina were concerned with the life of a community in its social, political, economic and administrative aspects. With the help and support of the local Ansars, Muhammad was able to establish a system of government that was way ahead of the time it belonged to in terms of its form and working. [x]
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When the leaders of Mecca found out that Muhammad was building a city state, they became anxious about the new influence. They feared that this position of authority and power would encourage Muhammad to extract revenge on them. The Quraish believed the best way to deal with this threat was to destroy Islam in its infancy. They gathered a large army and marched north towards Medina. When Muhammad came to find out about their intentions, he too put together an army consisting of only three hundred and thirteen men. The resulting battle was known as the ‘Battle of Badr’ and it was the first major war fought by the Muslims. Even though Muhammad’s army was poorly equipped and faced a force three times its size, they remained steadfast in their resolve towards protecting Islam and the Muslim army as a result was able to route the forces of Mecca.
The Battle of Badr was a landmark in the history of Islam and it had several important effects in terms of Medina as a city state. Firstly, Muhammad with only a handful of men was able to defeat a much larger army through sheer determination and discipline. This brought home to the leaders of the Quraish, the abilities of the very man they had driven from their city. Also, one of the allied tribes which had pledged support to the Muslims in the battle had proved lukewarm when the actual fighting started. They were expelled from Medina and Muhammad served a warning to every tribe in allegiance with the Muslims: membership in the community imposed the obligation of total support. [xi]
The Quraish, however, felt humiliated and almost one year after the Battle of Badr, they waged war again on the Muslims, this time coming with an army of almost three thousand soldiers. After establishing a strong foothold early in the battle, the Islamic army was put under pressure and had to retreat. Seeing as Muhammad and his followers were not entirely overpowered, the Quraish sent out an army again two years later in the hope of completely eliminating any sort of Islamic threat. At the Battle of the Trench, the result was completely different. The Muslims scored a signal victory by introducing a new form of defense. On the side of Median from which the attack was expected, they dug a trench too deep for the Meccan cavalry to clear without exposing itself to the archers posted behind the earthworks. After an inconclusive siege, the Meccans were forced to retire and thus establishing Medina and Muhammad’s Islam as a power to be reckoned with in the Arabian Peninsula. [xii]
The Constitution of Medina dates from this period. The charter established Muhammad as the leader of Medina and the Muslims as a separate entity in their own right. The Constitution also defined the role of non-Muslims in the society. Jews, for example, were part of the community; they were ‘dhimmis’, that is, protected people, as long as they conformed to its laws. Followers of the monotheistic religions were permitted spiritual independence. This did not, however, pertain to the Pagans as they could not be tolerated in a place that worshiped one God. [xiii]
According to Ibn Ishaq, one of the earliest biographers of the Prophet, “it was at about this time that Muhammad sent letters to various rulers all around the world- the King of Persia, the Emperor of Byzantium, the Negus of Abyssinia, and the Governor of Egypt among others – inviting them to submit to Islam.” [xiv] Muhammad so efficiently established a number of allies that, by 628 AD, he and almost a thousand Muslims were able to stipulate admittance to Mecca. This was a milestone in the history of Islam. Just a short time before, Muhammad had left the same city to establish an Islamic state and now he was being treated by the Quraish as a leader. Almost a year later he was able to occupy Mecca without any violence which. He cleaned the Kabah from the gods that were present and forever ended idol worship. At the same time Amr bin Al As and Khaleed bin Walid, accepted Islam and swore allegiance to Muhammad. Their acceptance of Islam was very important because they would later go on and through various campaigns, expand the Muslim empire. [xv]
After almost a decade since Muhammad migrated to Medina, he made his last pilgrimage to Mecca and delivered a farewell sermon to a congregation of about 120,000 people. Shortly afterwards, he was taken ill and passed away in 632 AD. The death of Muhammad was a profound loss. To his supporters he was more than a friend and a teacher. He was also a perfect role model who till this date has guided the faith and life of countless men and women and which has brought in a distinctive era in the history of mankind.
After his death, Muhammad’s legacy was continued by his close companions who took the responsibility of presiding over the Muslim population for years to come based on his teachings. Muslim dynasties were soon established and subsequent empires such as those of the Persians, Ottomans and the Mughals of India, were among the largest and most powerful the world has ever seen. The people of the Islamic world created numerous sophisticated centers of culture and science with far-reaching mercantile networks, travelers, scientists, hunters, mathematicians, doctors and philosophers, all of whom contributed to the rise of Islam.