III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > B. The Middle East and North Africa, 500–1500 > 1. The Rise and Expansion of Islam, 610–945 > b. Muhammad and the Rise of Islam
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
b. Muhammad and the Rise of Islam
On the eve of the rise of Islam, Arabia was a tribal, desert environment with no single political organization or faith. The majority of its inhabitants were pastoral nomads organized by tribe and clan, who fought with one another for access to precious resources such as water, herds, and land. Some Arabs were sedentary and farmed at oases, such as Yathrib, while at Mecca many of the inhabitants drew their livelihood from trade caravans between Yemen and Syria.  1
Around 100 B.C.E., the northern Arabs developed a new saddle that allowed them to gain greater control over the camels they rode. This breakthrough gave them the ability to use the camel for military purposes, which allowed them to control trade in Arabia and earn enough money from the transport and protection of goods to buy metal weapons. Although confined to a largely nomadic environment, many Arabs, especially those in the caravan trade, had contact with the two major empires to the north: the Byzantine Empire centered at Constantinople (324–1453) and the Zoroastrian Sassanian Empire (224–651), with its capital at Ctesiphon in Iraq. Both empires employed Arab mercenaries to protect their borders with Arabia. The Byzantines used the tribe of Ghassan, which converted to Christianity, while the Sassanians paid the Lakhmids, at al-Hira, for their military services.  2
Before the advent of Islam, most Arabs worshipped a variety of male and female deities. Only a minority, who were neither Christians nor Jews, were monotheists (hanif). Despite the vagaries of frequent feuds and raids (ghazwa), Arab tribes from surrounding areas journeyed to Mecca during truce months to worship at the polytheist shrine of the Ka’ba. The tribe of Quraysh in Mecca enjoyed special prestige as keepers of the Ka’ba, as well as political and economic prominence built on fortunes drawn from trade.  3
FOUNDATION OF THE FAITH OF ISLAM. The founder of Islam was Muhammad ibn Abdallah, a member of the tribe of Quraysh and the clan of Hashim who was born in Mecca around the year 570. Orphaned at an early age, Muhammad found employment in the caravan company of a rich widow named Khadija, whom he later married. According to Islamic tradition, in 610 he received his first divine revelation. He was ordered to recite the words that the angel Gabriel conveyed to him in Arabic from Allah, the supreme and sole deity of the new faith of Islam. The revelations continued throughout his lifetime and formed the Qur'an (“recitation”), regarded by all Muslims as their divinely dictated scripture. As the Prophet of Allah, Muhammad's task, according to Muslims, was to deliver the final and perfect message from God to all humanity. Previous communications had been misunderstood or corrupted by the Jews and Christians. As the bearer of the true message, Muhammad was considered the “Seal of the Prophets,” the last in a line of monotheistic messengers from Adam to Jesus.  4
The name of the religion, Islam, means submission to Allah, to be demonstrated by the five pillars of the faith defining the duties incumbent on all Muslims: salat (ritual prayer), zakat (almsgiving), hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), sawm (the fast during the month of Ramadan, when the Qur'an was first revealed), and the shahada, the recitation of faith that states, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger.”  5
The Qur'an consists of 114 chapters (suras) organized, after the first short opening chapter (the fatiha), from longest to shortest. Each chapter is divided into verses (ayas), the longest chapter containing 286. The text covers a multitude of themes, from descriptions of paradise and hell to social codes in matters of marriage and inheritance. The Qur'an was not set down in writing by the Prophet himself during his lifetime. He may have dictated parts of it to a secretary, but much of it remained scattered in written fragments and in the memory of men, not unusual in a society that favored oral tradition. The text was collected and organized in its definitive form around 644, some 12 years after the Prophet's death.  6
During Muhammad's lifetime and for many years to follow, the new faith remained rough and unformed. It took several centuries for Muslims to develop Islam's rich theological and legal traditions, including its elaborate code of laws (the shari’a).  7
Muhammad began preaching Islam publicly in Mecca. His early themes involved warnings about the end of the world and the Day of Judgment. Initially the Prophet met little opposition, because he was perceived as merely a poet or a soothsayer (kahin), but when he became insistent that there was only one god and that the Ka’ba must be reserved for Allah alone, the response of the Meccans grew harsh, even violent. They understood that Islam threatened their own beliefs, their prestige as the keepers of the sacred shrine, and the prominence of Mecca as a site for pilgrimage and trade. The earliest converts to Islam (Muslims) were members of Muhammad's family, young men from weak Meccan clans, and outsiders, often of slave origin.  8
According to the Qur'an and later Islamic tradition, Muhammad made his famous night journey and ascension to heaven (mi’raj) during this period. The Prophet began his journey from Mecca or, according to many other traditions, from Jerusalem, on the winged mule named Buraq. He met the prophets who had preceded him, and in the highest level of heaven he appeared before the throne of Allah.  9
Emigration of a small group of Muslims to Ethiopia, in search of a new site in which to practice their faith peacefully.  10
Death of Abu Talib, Muhammad's uncle and chief protector in Mecca. Without Abu Talib's influence, life for Muhammad and his followers, a persecuted minority, became increasingly difficult.  11
Death of Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of Muhammad and the first convert to Islam. She supported Muhammad economically and stood by him when, as a prophet, he was reviled by the Meccans. Muhammad had remained in a monogamous union with Khadija, with whom he had many children. The only child to survive the Prophet was his daughter Fatima (d. 633), whose sons would play a major role in later Islamic history. None of Muhammad's sons by Khadija lived through infancy.  12
622, Sept
The hijra, or emigration, of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina. Forced to flee the threatening environment of Mecca, Muhammad was asked to arbitrate a bloody dispute between the rival Aws and Khazraj tribes at the oasis town of Yathrib, known thereafter simply as Medina, meaning “the city” (of the Prophet). He soon emerged as the local leader, establishing the first Islamic theocratic community (umma), with himself as both Prophet and political leader.  13
The Islamic polity at Medina included those Meccan Muslims who had followed the Prophet to Medina (muhajirun) and Medinan converts to Islam (ansar). Inhabitants of Medina who did not accept Muhammad as their spiritual leader acknowledged his political supremacy. These groups included three Medinan Jewish tribes (Banu Qaynuqa’, Banu al-Nadir, and Banu Qurayza) as well as non-Muslim Arabs. In an effort to win the support of the Jews, Muhammad initially incorporated Jewish observances, such as the fast of Yom Kippur, into Islamic ritual, and designated Jerusalem as the Muslim direction of prayer. The Jews, however, rejected Islam and opposed the Prophet's mission on religious grounds.  14
The hijra became the first year of the Islamic calendar, a lunar calendar of 354 days—twelve months of either 29 or 30 days. The Islamic calendar is not adjusted periodically to correspond with the seasons, and over time, religious holidays fall in all seasons of the solar year.  15
The Battle of Badr. The victory of a small Muslim force over more numerous troops protecting a Meccan caravan resulted in the strengthening of Muhammad's political and economic position. Many of those Medinans who doubted him (munafiqun) were silenced, and the Jewish tribe of Banu Qaynuqa’ was exiled.  16
625, March
The Battle of Uhud. Meccan forces marched to the outskirts of Medina to take revenge for those slain at Badr, but the confrontation was inconclusive. The Jewish tribes avowed neutrality, but Muhammad accused the most wealthy of them, the Banu al-Nadir, of aiding the Meccans and expelled them from Medina.  17
627, March
Battle of the Trench (al-Khandaq). About 10,000 Meccan troops unsuccessfully besieged Medina. Muhammad and his 3,000 supporters dug a trench to prevent an attack on the city. The failure of the Meccans demonstrated that the Muslims of Medina had become a power to be reckoned with in western Arabia. After the battle, the Muslims accused the remaining Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza, of treason. The men were executed and the women and children sold into slavery. The Prophet now ruled a unified Medina and sought further influence among the tribes of western and northern Arabia.  18
Treaty of Hudaybiyya. The Meccans agreed to peace with Muhammad for ten years.  19
The Meccans vacated their city for three days to allow the Muslims to worship at the Ka’ba. All Muslims now focused on Mecca as the direction of prayer (qibla).  20
630, Jan
Meccan capitulation to Muhammad. The Muslims entered Mecca, cleared the Ka’ba of idols, and established the city as their religious center. Three weeks later the unified Muslim and Meccan forces defeated a confederation of beduin tribes from the nearby city of Ta'if, at the Battle of Hunayn. Muhammad's prestige was confirmed and the support of the Meccans cemented.  21
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.