The Rise of Islam
Updated: Aug 8, 2021
This article is a brief summary of the rise of Islam in the 7th century. The author does not have extensive research on this topic, so this is based on what the author has researched and found so far. Sources used are listed at the end of the article.
Islam's founder is, of course, Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim, better known as Muhammad of the Banu Hashim clan in the Quraysh tribe. He was born in 570 A.D and grew up as an orphan who later became a tradesman. Arabia was important for trade, as the lucrative trade route from the Roman Empire to India passed along the peninsula and via Yemen. Of the many towns and cities of Arabia, Mecca was by far the most important. Mecca was a trading hotspot, but also a centre for culture and religion due to the Kaaba - a shrine with 360 idols and the annual pilgrim destination for Arabian pagans. Besides Mecca, the rivalling Medina also served as an important trading hub, especially for agricultural produce. Muhammad was raised under the care of his grandfather, and then his uncle, the merchant Abu Talib. He would accompany his uncle on caravans, which possibly travelled as far as to Syria. In his twenties, he became the contracted merchant to the wealthy businesswoman Khadija, who would later become his wife for 25 years.
At the time, Arabia consisted of various warring tribes. They were mostly polytheists, believing in old Arabic folklore, in spirits and tribal gods. There were also significant groups of Jews, Christians, and Gnostics on the peninsula, particularly the strong Jewish community in Yemen and Christian societies around the Persian Gulf. Besides this, Arabia was home to various Gnostic groups. Gnostics were schismatics of Christianity who often merged paganism with Christianity. Between the 4th and 6th centuries, many of them were either ousted or exiled from the Roman Empire, and re-settled on the Arabian peninsula. Muhammad generally disagreed with polytheism and shared the belief by Jews and Christians that there is only one God. For years, he would occasionally retreat to a cave (cave of Hira) to pray and reflect.
In 610 A.D, he had an overwhelming experience. An angel apparently visited him in a dream and ordered him to recite verses that came directly from God. These verses (or "book" of verses), became the first Surah in the Qur’an, and affirmed that there is only one God and that Muhammad is God’s prophet. Muhammad was reportedly shook and petrified, but his wife Khadija told him that he was a prophet and that this angel was the Archangel Jibril (Gabriel). Muhammad kept this experience secret for three years.
Around 613 A.D, he began preaching this monotheism in Mecca and condemning polytheism, their practices, and idol worshipping. This angered the Meccans, who began persecuting him and his adherents. Among their many methods, they boycotted the goods of him and his followers. In 615, the persecution was so intense that many of Muhammad's followers fled to the Christian Kingdom of Abyssina (Axum) where they were sheltered as refugees under the Christian emperor Ashada ibn Abjar. In 617, Muhammad reconciled with the Meccans (after the satanic verses incident as reported by Ibn Ishaq and al-Tabari) and his followers were allowed to return.
In 622 A.D, a group of tribesmen from Medina invited Muhammad to become their new chieftain. Many of them had been exposed to Judaism and were welcoming of the monotheistic thought. They were also fighting amongst themselves, and wanted a leader to unify their town so it could compete with Mecca. Muhammad therefore emigrated to Medina (which angered the Meccans) and called upon his followers to do the same. They then established a constitution of Medina to smoothen the relationship between the warring tribes of the town and create a unified nation – known today as the Ummah.
As Muhammad’s life progressed, he kept having new visions and revelations from Jibreel. Each revelation addressed a new topic, depending on what stage Muhammad was in his life. For example, when tensions arose between Muhammad’s Medina grouping and the pagan Meccans, Muhammad received a vision that Muslims were permitted to fight the Meccans (Quran 9:5). The verses would also establish the rules of engagement, of looting and prisoners, and many other topics regarding warfare. As he would come to have thirteen wives, he also delivered verses on topics concerning women and family, establishing a limit of 4 wives per man, the laws of succession, on widows, orphans, on almsgiving, charity, and more.
His monotheism often summarised some selected stories from Judaism (like that of al-Musa, or Moses, Nun or Noah, Adam and Eve, etc). It endorsed both the Torah and the Gospels as legitimate, previous revelations from God to man, but was then regarded as the last and complete revelation (implying that the other revelations, though endorsed, were wrong and corrupted).
Naturally, it shared a lot of beliefs, traditions, and stories with both Judaism and Christianity – but always with a slightly different variation. Although the Torah is endorsed as a legitimate revelation from God, Muhammad did not subscribe to the Jewish Law. Instead, his theology dictated new rules and laws for his followers to submit to, many of which departed with Judaism.
Muhammad delivered a different version of the life of Abraham (Ibrahim). The heir to Abraham was not Isaac, as the Jews and Christians held, but Ishmael. Tradition states that Muhammad himself was a direct descendant of Ishmael, though this is unconfirmed. Still, contemporaries typically called Muhammad and his adherents Ishmaelites for this very reason.
The Quranic theology also offered some respect for Jesus of Nazareth (or Issa) – but unlike the Christians, it claimed that Jesus was not the Son of God or anything divine, but merely a human prophet. All the Judeo-Christian themes of atonement, restoration in the Image of God, and the idea of the Messiah as an eternal, universal liberator, were either absent, different, or considered unimportant. A summary of Jesus’ miracles was presented, but his crucifixion, death, and resurrection were all claimed to have never occurred (Quran 4:157). The Quran placed Muhammad as God’s final messenger (“the Seal of the Prophets”), the greatest prophet in history, sent by God to perfect religion (Quran 33:40). He was therefore placed superior to Jesus of Nazareth, and commonly acknowledged to be the most morally perfect human in history (Quran 68:4, 33:21). These departures from traditional monotheism made it clear that Muhammad’s theology was something new entirely (although some contemporary Christians, like St. John of Damascus, viewed this belief system as a Christian heresy, not a separate religion).
The religion received the name Islam. Islam is an Arabic term of various meanings, but is commonly known to mean submission, safety, peace, wholeness, or surrender. Its followers were known as Muslims, being the "to be" of the aforementioned terms.
In 624 - 24 years after Muhammad's first vision in the cave of Hira - the Meccans had forcefully evicted Muslims from their homes, and Muhammad took to arms. With 300 adherents, he ambushed a Meccan caravan in the Battle of Badr. The victory strengthened Muhammad’s position, and his following expanded. Both parties began raiding each other's caravans.
The Meccans struck back with force in what became the Battle of Uhud, which Muhammad lost. As they returned to Medina, Muhammad delivered new verses explaining that they had lost due to disobedience, but also to be tested (Quran 3:152).
Motivated by their victory, the Meccans formed a coalition and laid siege to Medina in what became the Battle of the Trench. Here, Muhammad outlasted the coalition. After the bloodshed, the two striding parties decided to form a truce and cease all hostilities. Some Muslims disagreed with the truce, but Muhammad had won a lot through the treaty. The balance of power had evened out between Mecca and Medina, and Muslims were recognised by Mecca as a new force and belief system to be respected. Muslims could also begin their pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj), as enacted by Muhammad. Muhammad also told them to pray facing Mecca, as they had previously faced Jerusalem.
Muhammad then turned his attention northwards. First, he launched an attack on the Jewish community in the Khaybar oasis (not to be mistaken by Khaybar in Jordan), as they had allegedly collaborated with the Meccan coalition (Islamic historian Ibn Shaq records an execution of the Jews of this tribe already in the aftermath of the Battle of the Trench). After a siege, the Jewish tribe surrendered the city and their wealth. Here, a Jewish woman, who's family had been killed, poisoned Muhammad's food. He ate some of it, but spat it out as he realised it's odd taste. One of his companions, however, ate all of it and was killed. Muhammad would go on to suffer severe internal damages from this poisoning (Sahih al-Bukhari).
Next, he sent his forces to the Transjordan to fight the Arabic allies of the Eastern Roman Empire. This culminated in the Battle of Mu'utah, where the Emperor of the Eastern Romans (Heraclius) personally arrived with a large force to repel the attack. The Muslims lost, and all its commanders, except for a young Khalid ibn al-Walid, were killed.
In 630, a tribe supported by the Meccans had attacked Muslim pilgrims. War erupted again, but this time, Mecca was weaker than before. Muhammad lay siege to Mecca and easily conquered it, sparing the population from any significant slaughter. The Kaaba shrine was cleansed of statues of idols, and essentially converted into a Muslim site. Tradition holds that the Kaaba was originally built by Abraham and Ishmael, making it holy for Muslims. Inside lay the Black Stone, an object worthy of veneration from Muslims (this black stone is supposed to have also been venerated in pre-Islamic times. Tradition states that it was given to Adam and Eve by God). Today, Mecca, and specifically the Kaaba, is considered the holiest site in all of Islam.
With thousands of men now under his command, Muhammad kept campaigning on the Arabian peninsula and expanded his borders. A new expedition North was conducted to strike back at the Arab allies of Constantinople. Bedouin tribes around the peninsula received letters calling them to surrender to Islam. As tribe after tribe fell into Muhammad's dominion, he eventually gained control over the entire peninsula. Meanwhile, additional visions kept appearing to him as he formalised the laws, structure, and customs of the Ummah.
Muhammad died in 632, likely of internal damages from the poisoning in the Khaybar oasis. It was disputed who would become his successor, with some favouring his long-time companion Abu Bakr and others favouring his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib (herein originates the great Sunni-Shia divide), but Abu Bakr eventually secured leadership. He took the title Caliph, meaning "successor to the prophet."
Upon hearing news of Muhammad’s death, scores of Arabian tribes immediately renounced their allegiance to the new Islamic state. They were principally against the tax requirement (zakat). Many of the tribal leaders also professed to be prophets, but since Muhammad had made it perfectly clear to the Muslims that he was the last prophet, they were simply regarded as imposters. Abu Bakr labelled the rebels as apostates of Islam, and thus, this affair became known as the Ridda wars, or Wars of the Apostates (632 to 633). Abu Bakr called for Jihad - holy war - and swiftly crushed the rebellion and re-asserted control. Having dealt with the rebels, he turned his attention northwards, sending raids against Roman and Persian lands. He died two years later in 634 and was succeeded by Omar ibn al-Khattab.
At this time, both the Eastern Roman Empire and Sassanid Persian Empire were exhausted of manpower, resources, and finances. They had fought a massive war against each other for decades. At first, the Persians had managed to conquer Syria, Palestine, Egypt and penetrated deep into Turkey to besiege Constantinople - but the Romans fought back and drove them out of the newly conquered territories. By 628, the Romans had just managed to win back lost territory. However, the total war between these empires had devastated the region and alienated them from the local populations. It was the perfect moment for the Arab hordes to strike.
The Caliph Omar and the general Khalid ibn al-Walid (who was known as "The Sword of Allah") launched major attacks on Mesopotamia. Khalid gave a stark ultimatum to either submit to Islam, pay Jizya or face total war. The Persians resisted for a little while but were overrun.
Having swept through Mesopotamia at all haste, Khalid turned West to confront the Romans. At Yarmouk, he won a crushing victory, where the entire Roman army was annihilated. This left Palestine and Syria wide open. Khalid conquered its cities, then turned South to vanquish Egypt. Across these territories, Islamic rule was immediately enforced. Non-Muslims became known as dhimmis, or second-class citizens, who had to pay taxes and submit to a series of societal restrictions to maintain their freedom of religion.
Around the 650s, internal strife led the Caliphate into a civil war (the First Fitnah) that broke the empire. The governor of Syria declared himself the new Caliph, and thereby established a new dynasty, the Umayyads. The Umayyad Caliphate would go on to sweep through North Africa, which was occupied by various Indo-European kingdoms, conquer the Iberian peninsula and invade as far as France, where they were stopped by the Franks. By the 8th century, the Caliphate had expanded its holdings from Spain to Persia and established its Islamic rule. The world was forever changed.
The rise of Islam hold a unique place in world history. It is baffling to see how a group of Arab tribesmen managed to organise a state, expand so rapidly, win battles, and conquer so much territory, within the span of 200 years. This story echoes Djenghis Khan and the Mongol empire (Djenghis was also an orphan who, step by step, unified the Mongolian tribes and conquered a vast empire), but with one crucial difference: Djenghis Khan did not introduce a new religion. Nor was he considered a prophet of any kind. Thus, when the Mongol empire dissolved due to internal strife, it left little behind. However, even though the Caliphate would dissolve, the religion continued.
From reading this story, it is apparent that the rise of Islam went hand-in-hand with the rise of a new political entity, a Caliphate bound on territorial expansion. The line between state and religion was absent, or blurred, at best. This arguably plays a significant role in the theology and worldview of the Quranic mind.
In terms of the storyline, Christianity is the only history that can match that of Islam. Like Islam, Christianity began with a small group of poor men, led by a religious figurehead. Unlike Islam, Christians never formed armies, picked up the sword, or found a political entity, but were instead persecuted for the first three to four centuries of their religion's existence. Yet, like Islam, Christianity still conquered nations and empires. This is what makes Islam and Christianity so interesting to compare. Both are global religions, with a non-ethnic call for unity in the monotheistic faith. Yet, they do so with very different worldviews, theology, and origins.
Biography of Muhammad According to the Islamic tradition, by Britannica. Accessed at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Muhammad/Biography-according-to-the-Islamic-tradition#ref1248221
Life of Muhammad, by Biography.com. Accessed at:
Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, by PBS.org. Accessed at: https://www.pbs.org/muhammad/timeline_html.shtml Was the Prophet Poisoned? Is Sahih Bukhari Completely Authenic? by Seekers Guidance. Accessed at: https://seekersguidance.org/answers/islamic-belief/was-the-prophet-poisoned-and-is-sahih-bukhari-completly-authentic/
What does the word Islam Mean in English? Islam in Brief, by Umm Muadh in ISLAMFATH. Available at: https://islamfaith.com/what-does-the-word-islam-mean-in-english/
How the Prophet's migration to Medina impacted Islam, by MUSLIM INC. Available at: https://musliminc.com/how-the-prophets-migration-to-medina-impacts-islam-15154
Khalid ibn al-Walid, Who Is Khalid Bin Walid (R.A)? by Islam Religion Guardian. Available at: https://www.islamreligionguardian.com/khalid-ibn-walid/
Arabia Haeresium Ferax by Darren M. Slade. Accessed at: https://www.academia.edu/7928101/Arabia_Haeresium_Ferax_Arabia_Bearer_of_Heresies_Schismatic_Christianity_s_Potential_Influence_on_Muhammad_and_the_Qur_an
History of the Kaaba, Newsweek. Accessed at: https://www.newsweek.com/what-kaaba-holiest-muslim-site-survive-war-rebellion-weather-654932 Rashidun Caliphate, by Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Rashidun_Caliphate/
Ridda Wars, by Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Ridda_Wars
St. John of Damacus Critique of Islam, by St. John of Damascus. Accessed at: http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/stjohn_islam.aspx
The brief comments on the theology of the Quran are drawn from my own impressions having read the Quran. There are plenty more discussions and analysis to have on the Quran, but this was not the objective of this article.