Two things unite most Muslims: their belief in the unity of God and their veneration of Muhammad as the channel through which God’s final revelation was given.
Muslims claim that God revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad whom they see as the greatest and last prophet. The Arabic word Islam means submission. Muslims are those who claim to submit to God and His will and law as presented by Muhammad and found in the Qur’an and in the traditions recording Muhammad’s life, deeds, and sayings (hadith).
Muhammad’s figure towers over Islam not just as its founder, but as the perfect man who is divinely inspired not only in the Qur’anic revelation, but in all his sayings and deeds. He is infallible, free from sin, and the supreme example all Muslims are obliged to emulate in every detail.
Most Muslims in theory affirm the believer’s direct access to God without the need for any intercessor, and the humanity of Muhammad as simply a human channel for God’s revelation. In practice, however, things are very different. Muhammad is seen as the intercessor with God who can change the divine decrees and admit those for whom he intercedes into paradise. Many hold that Muhammad was created from an eternal heavenly substance (Muhammadan light) that pre-existed with God. He is a logos-like figure similar to Christ — a sinless savior, mediator, and intercessor.
Love for Muhammad (and his family) is deeply inculcated into most Muslim children. Protecting his honor from any assault is an obligation on all. Any suspected denigration of Muhammad creates disturbances and riots in Muslim communities. It is classed as blasphemy and deserves the death sentence, as Salman Rushdie experienced after his book The Satanic Verses was published, and as the furor over the Danish Muhammad cartoons exposed.
Great men usually have great foibles. The Qur’an and hadith actually expose the violence, cruelty, immorality, treachery, and assassinations in the words and deeds of Muhammad. The elevation of Muhammad to a position of sinless infallibility has served to turn his human weaknesses into virtues in the view of many Muslims who seek to emulate him. His use of violence has been sanctified, and this remains one of the unresolved problems of Islam.
Islam arose in the seventh century a.d. among the Arabic-speaking tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Some were nomadic Bedouin, others settled farmers, traders, and craftsmen in the oasis towns. Most worshiped numerous gods, among whom Allat, Manat, and Uzzat were prominent. They also feared spirits and sacrificed to them, as well as believing in blind fate. Honor and vengeance were important tribal values, and poetry was the main artistic accomplishment.
There were several Jewish communities in Arabia — mainly in Yemen and Yathrib (Medina). Christians were present in Yemen and Najran. Pagan Arabs thus had some knowledge of Jewish and Christian scriptures and doctrines gained from these communities.
Arabia was situated between the two super-powers of the time — the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Zoroastrian Persian Empire, which had been fighting each other to exhaustion for centuries.
In later Muslim view, this pre-Islamic era was called the age of ignorance (jahiliyya), a byword for barbarism, immorality, and idolatry. For most Muslims, “true” history begins with the advent of Islam, and they have little interest in anything that happened before.
The earliest accounts of Muhammad’s life were written by Muslims at least 150 years after his death, and there is no external evidence to corroborate them. According to these sources, Muhammad was born around 570 a.d. in Mecca to a poor family of the Quraysh tribe. His father Abdullah died a few months before his birth and his mother Amina when he was six, leaving him in the care of his grandfather who died two years later. Muhammad was then raised under the custody of his uncle Abu Talib, who took him on his trading caravan trips to Syria. It is possible that on those trips he discussed religion with Jews and Christians he met on the way.
As a young man he found employment with a rich widow, Khadija, who was fifteen years his senior. They were married when he was twenty five. They had seven children, but the three sons born to them died young. Of the daughters that survived, Fatima is the most famous. She married Muhammad’s cousin Ali, son of Abu Talib. Khadija died twenty-five years after their marriage, and after her death Muhammad married twelve more wives, thus “sanctifying” polygamy.
Muhammad had a contemplative nature and used to retire for meditation to a cave on a mountainside near Mecca. At the age of forty, while on such a retreat and in a state of trance, he claimed to have had a vision in which a heavenly being, later identified as the archangel Gabriel, committed to him the first in a long series of messages which he was commanded to preach to mankind. These messages were later collected by his followers as the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.
Most Meccans rejected Muhammad’s teaching, and their growing hostility led to a violent persecution of the small Muslim community. In 622 Muhammad left Mecca and moved to the city of Yathrib (Medina) whose inhabitants were more favorably disposed to his message.
The migration to Medina (called hijra) was a turning point in the early history of Islam, and later was chosen to mark the beginning of the Muslim era. It gave rise to the Muslim doctrine that when in danger from non-Muslims, Muslims should migrate to an area under safe Muslim control, there to await the time when they would have the strength to reconquer their lost land.
Muhammad was able to unite the various factions within Medina and lead them in the fight against his enemies. In Medina he was transformed from a simple preacher to the ruler of the Muslim state, its lawgiver, supreme judge, and military commander. After several campaigns the Meccans finally surrendered, and Muhammad entered Mecca victoriously, destroyed its idols, and turned it into the center of Islam. This initial era of warfare laid the foundation for the Muslim doctrine of holy war, jihad, as the means for expanding the political domain of Islam. Muslims accept that the first model Muslim community developed in stages: first, the stage of weakness in which Islam was peacefully proclaimed in Mecca; then, separation from unbelievers and migration to a safe place (Medina) where Muslim strength could be built up; and finally, the sacred fight (jihad) to reconquer Mecca and extend Muslim political dominion.
As Muhammad gained power after his migration to Medina, he became much more hostile towards pagans, Jews, Christians, and Muslim “hypocrites” and “apostates.” Muhammad had initially recognized the validity of Judaism and Christianity, choosing Jerusalem as the direction of prayer. He later turned against his Jewish allies who would not accept his claims to being a prophet. This friction with Jews, and later with various Christian communities, hardened his position as to the absolute superiority of Islam. The direction of prayer was changed to Mecca, and Muhammad fought the Jewish tribes, massacred many of their men, enslaved their women and children, and expelled others from their lands. Muhammad also ordered the assassinations of people who dared criticize him (especially poets). These brutal acts were used as a propaganda tool to affirm the superiority and power of Islam and to recruit others to the new religion. Muhammad’s peaceful exhortations in Mecca were followed by aggressive calls to violence in Medina. These internal contradictions in the Qur’an have traditionally been solved by the doctrine of abrogation accepted by most jurists and schools of law. Whenever there are contradictory statements, the later passages are deemed to have abrogated the earlier ones.
The brutality of contemporary Islamic terrorists in mass murder of innocent civilians and in beheadings of prisoners obviously harks back to such paradigmatic examples from Muhammad’s life. It aims at recruiting to the radical organizations more Muslims who recognize the original model.
Muhammad died in 632 and was succeeded by Abu Bakr who consolidated Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and started the drive ordered by Muhammad for its expansion abroad. Under the first four “rightly guided” caliphs, Muslim armies conquered vast areas from the Byzantines while totally overrunning the Persian Empire. This expansion was seen as a holy war, jihad, supposedly ordered by God to make His true religion, Islam, dominant in the world. By 750 the Muslim empire stretched from Spain and Morocco in the West to India and the borders of China in the East. Many who would not accept Islam were killed or enslaved, and huge tracts of land were confiscated for the Islamic state and the Arab settlers. The conquered subjects entered a long period of Muslim domination in which they were relegated to the status of second-rate citizenship.