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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson

Islam and the Prophet Muhammad


Although Islam is a sister religion of Christianity and Judaism, Christians are generally ignorant and contemptuous of its origins and beliefs.

and let's not say "Mohammedanism."

Some distinctions

Muhammad: the prophet of Islam
Islam: "the yoke": the religion revealed by Muhammad
Muslim: a follower of Islam
Arabic: usually refers to the Arabic language. Most Muslims are ,not Arabs, although most Arabs are Muslims. 1. Mecca in 570 A.D.

A: It was an agricultural center of the Arabian periphery. It was ruled by the heads of the major clans of the city's population.

B: It was the center of Bedouin worship. The nomadic peoples of the interior brought the physical embodiments of their gods to be placed in the building in the center of Mecca called the Ka'aba for safe-keeping. Individuals went their on pilgrimage (hadj) and entire clans went there for collective worship during the sacred truce of Ramadan. Thus Mecca was a center of all Arabia, and obtained considerable wealth from its visitors.

C: Mecca was also a major caravan center. The Persian-Byzantine wars had blocked the overland route of the silk and spice road to India and China, and pirates and bandits blocked the Red Sea to regular commerce. Goods came by sea from India, landed at Aden where they were joined by trade goods from the interior of Africa, and carried in caravans up the western coast of Arabia -- through Mecca and Medina to Petra in Palestine, where the route split. The northern fork went to Damascus and the southern to Alexandria.

An observation: although largely a tribal society of polytheists, the inhabitants of Mecca lived in one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the time and were exposed to a wide range of ideas. Their culture was oral, but rich.

2. Muhammad (570-632)

Born to a poor branch of the major clan of the Khoraish, and orphaned early, Muhammad was reared by his uncle, who got him a job with a caravan company. He eventually married Khadija, owner of the company, and settled down to a dignified life of study -- although he could not read -- contemplation, and poetry. He began to contemplate religion, and would retire to a cave outside Mecca to meditate upon the universe. A vision of the angel Gabriel appeared to him, telling him that he had a mission from god. God had written a book -- the Qu'ran -- at the beginning of time that contained all wisdom. Gabriel would tell him from time to time a portion of that book and he would reveal it to the people. The first message was THERE IS NO GOD BUT GOD, AND MUHAMMAD IS THE PROPHET OF GOD.

Muhammad slowly gathered a group of followers and was threatened with death for his insistence on the existence of only one god. In 622, he and his followers fled to Medina, to which he had been invited as chief and judge to mediate between the Jews, Christians, and idolaters who inhabited the town. This flight was the hijra (the flight), regarded as the beginning of Islam and the first year of the Muslim calendar.

He soon became master of Medina and waged a war against the inhabitants of Mecca. The Meccans finally gave up and accepted Islam, and Muhammad honored Mecca as the center of the faith. He then revealed the obligations of Islam : the pillars of the faith. These were 1) the profession that there is but one god and that Muhammad is his prophet, 2) daily prayer, 3) the obligation of giving alms to widows, orphans, the poor, and needy, 4) to try to make the pilgrimage to mecca at least once in one's life, and 5) to keep the fast of ramadan. There are three additional duties: 1) to wage holy way (jihad) against those who persecute the faithful, 2) to observe some dietary restrictions, such as not eating pork or drinking alcoholic beverages to excess (which most Muslims have converted into an absolute prohibition), and 3) trying to learn to read the qu'ran.

When Muhammad died in 632, many of his followers were panicked, but his chief disciples brought order and created an institutionalized faith, although without an organized priesthood or connection between church and state.

3. The Expansion of Islam

By 732, Islam had spread from Spain to Sumatra, and Muslim ships dominated by the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. The reasons for this rapid expansion were numerous.

a. The Persian and Byzantine empires were exhausted and could not resist muslim attacks.
b. Many people favored monotheism and found the Byzantine trinity and Persian dualism distasteful. Islam was more to their liking, and they not only converted to Islam, but helped to spread it further.
c. The Muslims swept away the burdensome taxation and top-heavy government in those lands that accepted them.
d. Islam was simple to understand, and its observances were clear and unequivocal. It did not call for asceticism and condemned excesses of all kinds.
e. Conversion was a simple and straightforward matter.
f. The Muslims practiced religious toleration, and the social and economic doctrines of Islam were far more humane than those of the other peoples of the time. Islam was a liberal force.
g. Arabic gave the peoples of Islam a common language, and the Qu'ran gave them a common set of laws and values.

4. The Effects of the Rise of Islam

The cultural unity of the Mediterranean, the creation of the Roman empire, disappeared as a Semitic and non-Christian society established itself in the region. The trade routes connecting the eastern and western branches of Christendom were weakened as the Muslims seized control of the sea. The Carolingians turned away from the Mediterranean, and Western Europe developed in a continental semi-isolation. The region was freed from lingering influences of the Byzantine empire and was left to develop on its own.

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Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.