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Don Stewart :: What Is the Early History of Islam?

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What Is the Early History of Islam?

Islam – Question 2

Islam is the name of a religion that began in Arabia in the seventh century A.D. The word Islam is derived from an Arabic verb which means “to submit” or “to surrender.” One who accepts or submits to the religion of Islam is a “Muslim.” The human founder of Islam was a man named Muhammad (also spelled Mohammed or Muhammed). Muslims consider Muhammad an apostle and prophet. In fact, he is assumed to be the last and greatest of the prophets or the “seal of the prophets.”

The Problem of Accurate Sources

Before we look at what Islam believes, we must understand certain difficulties we will face. There is a problem in establishing an accurate history of Islam because of the lack of early sources. The earliest written accounts about Muhammad are from some one hundred fifty years after his death. All of these early sources are Muslim. Indeed, we have no early non-Muslim evidence that supports the claims of Islam. Therefore, our only sources are from those who have already accepted the faith. While this does not mean the reports are untrue, it does mean that we should understand the accounts are coming from those who are sympathetic to its claims.

The Three Main Sources of Information

The three main sources of our understanding of Islamic beginnings are its holy book, the Quran, the oral traditions about Muhammad that were later written down, known as the “hadith,” and the early biographies of Muhammad. It is from these three sources that we derive our information about Islam and its “prophet.”

The Beginnings of Islam

From the sources that we do have, we can summarize the life of Muhammad and the early history of Islam in the following manner.

Mecca: The Birthplace of Muhammad

Muhammad was born in the year A.D. 570 or 571 in the wealthy merchant town of Mecca which is in present-day Saudi Arabia. At that time, Mecca was a very important trading center that stood on the main caravan routes.

Apart from being a wealthy city, Mecca also was the home of the Ka’ba. This was a cube-like shrine that housed a number of “sacred stones.” There was one particular one, the “Black Stone;” that was placed in the eastern wall of the Ka’ba. It was believed that this stone had come from heaven.

The various tribes throughout Arabia would make a yearly pilgrimage, known as the hajj, to visit the Ka’ba and the sacred stone. The people would kiss this black meteoric stone during this pilgrimage as well as pray to one or more of the various gods which were enshrined there. The Quraysh tribe, of which Muhammad’s family belonged, was the custodians of the sacred shrine.

The people of Arabia were for the most part engaged in idol worship. They believed in and worshipped many gods. There were some 360 different deities worshipped at the Ka’ba. In addition, to the idolatrous population, there were Jewish and Christian groups living in Arabia at that time.

The Christians were those that had fled from the Byzantine Empire because they had been condemned as heretics for their false doctrine about Jesus. Therefore, any picture of Christianity, which Muhammad or others would have heard about, would have been distorted. This helps us understand some of the misconceptions that Muhammad held about the Christian faith.

Muhammad’s Early Years

According to the reports that have come down to us, the early years of Muhammad were not very happy. His father, Abdullah, died before he was born. His mother, Aminah, died when Muhammad was only six. His grandfather died when Muhammad was eight. Without mother or father, the orphan Muhammad was raised by his uncle Abu Talib.

Muhammad Becomes Prosperous in Business

As he grew to manhood, Muhammad became a successful businessman. He made his first business trip to Syria at age twelve. Later, he joined the merchant’s guild at Mecca and traveled the caravan trading route. He managed the caravan trade for a wealthy widow named Khadijah. When he was twenty-five and she was forty, they married. The couple resided in Mecca and had seven children. Sadly, all of them died at a young age except for one daughter, Fatimah.

In Mecca, Muhammad lived the life of a successful businessman. In his business dealings, he would come in contact with both Jews and Christians. While religion was discussed, Muhammad was not persuaded by Jewish or Christian beliefs, or the beliefs of the idolatrous people of Arabia. Religiously, he was not satisfied.

Muhammad Comes to Believe Only One God, Named Allah, Exists

Because Muhammad was wealthy, he could spend large amounts of uninterrupted time thinking about religious matters. He was bothered by the idolatrous practices of his people. Muhammad came to believe that there was only one true God who existed. His name was Al-lah or Allah. On a regular basis, Muhammad would go up to a cave on Mount Hirah, three miles from Mecca, to fast and pray to this one God. While meditating, he would enter a trance-like state.

He Starts Receiving Visions and Messages from Allah

The year A.D. 610 was a turning point for Muhammad and for the religion that would later be called Islam. At about the age of forty, while on Mount Hirah, Muhammad began to experience visions and receive messages. His first vision, called “the Night of Power and Excellence” took place in the month of Ramadan about the year A.D. 610. This month or Ramadan was sacred in the polytheistic culture of that time.

According to Muhammad a heavenly being appeared in the sky and then came to within two bow shots of him. The first word from this angelic visitor is thought to be the Arabic word meaning “recite.” This word is related to the Arabic term “Quran” which means “recitation.”

Muhammad believed that the messages he received were from the angel Gabriel, the same one mentioned in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Gabriel was delivering these messages on behalf of the one God Allah. Though Muhammad was at first uncertain about the messages, his wife, who may have been Jewish, convinced him that these visions were indeed from the one, true God.

Privately, he told a few people of his experiences. His first converts were from his own family. The first adult convert apart from his family was a wealthy merchant named Abu Bakr. For two years, Muhammad did not publicly proclaim the messages he was receiving.

The Message of Allah, the One True God, Begins to Be Proclaimed by “the Prophet”

Finally, Muhammad decided to proclaim to others the revelations from Allah. At Mount Safa near Mecca, he made an open call to Islam. His message was there is one God and his name is Allah. Furthermore, any worship of idols is an abomination to Allah. Therefore, judgment is coming to this idolatrous people.

It is important to realize that the people were already familiar with the god Allah. Indeed, they acknowledged him as the chief god. However, they also acknowledged and worshipped other gods. Muhammad’s unique message was that Allah was the only God who existed and that worship of any other type of god or idol would result in divine judgment.

The Satanic Verses

Early on, Muhammad recited verses which permitted devotion to the “daughters of Allah.” These were three goddesses which were enshrined in the Ka’ba along with Allah. Later, however, he recited new verses which replaced these earlier ones. Devotion was now to be to Allah alone. These verses which permitted the devotion to the “daughters of Allah” were then rejected because they were assumed to have been recited by Satan, not Allah! They became known as “the Satanic Verses.” Muhammad eventually came to teach a consistent doctrine of strict monotheism. There is only one God and his name is Allah. He has no partners.

As he continued to receive these revelations, the number of converts to this new-found faith increased. Since he could neither read nor write, Muhammad had to recite the revelations that he was receiving. Others had to write down his recitations. A collection of these recitations was made into a new scripture known as the Koran, or Quran. As we earlier mentioned, this word means “the reading” or “the recitation.”

Muhammad Is Forced to Flee His Home in Mecca: The Hijrah

The new religion was not without opposition. The people of Mecca believed him to be either a madman or an imposter. Some of the believers in his new religion went to Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia. Fearing for his life, on July 15, 622, Muhammad and a small group of his followers were forced to leave Mecca to the city of Yathrib. Later, Yathrib would be renamed Medina or “the city of the prophet.” The year 622 is highly significant in Islamic history. The flight of Muhammad to Medina is known as the “hijrah.” Muslim calendars begin the Islamic era from this date (A.H. “after hijrah”).

In Yathrib, the people were more receptive to his teachings that the one in Mecca. The people were not idolatrous like those in Mecca but rather they believed in only one God. This made Muhammad’s message of the unity of God attractive.

In addition, they needed a strong leader who could unite the various tribes. Muhammad tried to play the role of peacemaker between the diverse warring groups. However, his efforts met with resistance. Muhammad then organized an army to stabilize the situation. He and his army killed those who did not accept his new religion. Once in control, he built a house of worship, known as a mosque, and formed the first Islamic state. His government laid out the rules to regulate the behavior of the people. These rules were based upon the new religion of Islam.

The Doctrine of Islam Begins to Be Formed in Medina

It was during this time at Yathrib, or Medina, when the doctrine of Islam began to take shape. At first, the Jews and Christians were somewhat sympathetic to Muhammad’s teachings. He was speaking out against idolatry and emphasizing the unity of God. In addition, he adopted a number of Jewish practices. Since Muhammad’s message was to his own idolatrous people, he could live in harmony with the Jews and Christians.

However, all of this soon changed. When the Jews refused to accept Muhammad as their prophet or adopt Islamic practices the message began to be modified No longer was his message restricted to his own peoples. He was Allah’s prophet to all humanity. Indeed, he taught that Allah had given the Jews and Christians divine revelation from the beginning, but they had corrupted it.

Muhammad said that while both the Jewish and the Christian religions were God-given, he himself was chosen to reveal a religious system that was more perfect than either of them. He was now sent to deliver the last revelation of the one true God to humanity, and to correct the errors of these two religions. The Quran was now the supreme revelation of God. It superseded all previous revelations. Thus, Christianity and Judaism needed to be abandoned.

Consequently, the direction of prayer was changed. Initially, Muhammad had taught that believers were to face Jerusalem when they prayed. However, in his second year at Medina, a revelation came to him that said the direction of prayer was now to be toward Mecca.

Islam Expands Its Influence and Conquers Mecca

Within eight years after coming to Yathrib, or Medina, the armies of Muhammad controlled all of Arabia. He conquered Mecca in A.D. 630, or in the eighth year after the “hijrah.” Consistent with the visions he received about Allah, Muhammad ordered every idol destroyed in the main temple, with the exception of the black stone in the Ka’ba. This stone that was formerly used in idol worship was the only one of the 360 idols that Muhammad did not destroy.

Muhammad ruled all of Arabia in the name of the one, true God, Allah. He is the first person to unite the tribes. He died in 632 and was buried in Medina. However, his religion did not die with him.

Islam after Muhammad

After Muhammad’s death, Islam continued to flourish. The immediate successor, or Caliph as he is called, was Abu Bakr, his first adult convert from outside his family. He was succeeded in A.D 634 by Caliph Umar. Umar ruled until A.D 644 when Caliph Utman succeeded him. During this time, Islam continued to expand throughout the region.

By the middle of the seventh century, Islam possessed most of Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt. Some thirty years later the followers of Muhammad were taking over parts of Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia. The armies advanced through Spain into France but were halted in A.D 732 at the decisive battle of Tours-Poitiers. These lands which they conquered are under Islamic control to this day with the exception of Spain which expelled the Muslims, known as Moors, in 1492.

Today, one billion people worldwide claim to be Muslims, the followers of the religion which was formulated in the Arabian Desert in the seventh century A.D.

Furthermore, apart from Jesus Christ, Muhammad has probably had more influence in human history than any other individual. Indeed, in his short time as “the prophet,” this one man changed a fragmented Arabian culture which believed in and worshipped many gods into a unified band of people with the belief in one God. He had provided these people with a new vision as well as a clear sense of destiny. Consequently, the religion which has sprung from this one man is definitely a force to be reckoned with.

Observations about Islam and Its Beginnings

From a Christian perspective, there are a number of observations and contrasts that we can make between the origin of Islam and that of Christianity. A few obvious things come to mind.

1. In Contrast to Islam the Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy

The records that substantiate the life and ministry of Jesus Christ are reliable. This is in contrast to the records we have about Islam and the Quran. While the New Testament was written some six hundred years before the Quran, the text has been transmitted more accurately. Indeed, we know that it reads today the same as how it originally read. In other words, we can have complete confidence that the message of Jesus has not been altered.

Moreover, what we have in the New Testament are firsthand accounts of people who were either eyewitnesses of the events in Jesus’ life, or those who recorded eyewitness testimony. The writers testified to the fact that they were there to witness the events they recorded. John, one of Jesus’ apostles, wrote,

He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. (John 19:35 ESV)

The Apostle John was there and is telling us what he saw. We are dealing with firsthand testimony, eyewitness testimony.

The Quran, on the other hand, is the result of an alleged communication between Allah and Muhammad. There is no possible way to verify it historically. We have to take his word that God spoke to him through the angel Gabriel since no one else heard the communication. All we have is his unconfirmed word.

2. Muhammad Had an Incorrect View of Christianity

As we mentioned, the contact that Muhammad had with Christians were with those whom the church branded as heretics. They held a number of views of Jesus Christ that were inconsistent with orthodox beliefs and with the teachings of Scripture. Therefore, the “prophet” began with certain misconceptions about what Christians actually believed. We find the same misconceptions about Jesus in the holy book of Islam, the Quran. The Christian God, that Muhammad rejected, is, in part, not the God that the New Testament reveals. Indeed, it is a different God and a different Jesus.

This, of course, is not new. Indeed, the Apostle Paul was faced with those in his day who preached a different Jesus and a different message about Him. Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians.

But I fear that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your minds may be corrupted from a complete and pure devotion to Christ. For if a person comes and preaches another Jesus, whom we did not preach, or you receive a different spirit, which you had not received, or a different gospel, which you had not accepted, you put up with it splendidly!... For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself is disguised as an angel of light. So it is no great thing if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their destiny will be according to their works. (2 Corinthians 11:3-4, 13-15 HCSB)

Thus, the idea of presenting a different Jesus and a different gospel was something that Paul the Apostle faced. The fact that Muhammad came along and also preached a different Jesus should not surprise us.

3. Christianity Was Spread by Love Not the Sword

The Christian faith was spread by believers who gave their lives in the proclamation of the gospel. There were innumerable people who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed because they were spreading the message of God’s love for humanity as show in Jesus Christ. This is consistent with the teachings and behavior of the founder of the faith. Jesus suffered and died without resisting or fighting back.

In complete contrast to this, Islam conquered by the sword. Its converts were made by force. This is consistent with the teachings and practices of its founder. The contrast between Islam and Christianity in this particular area could not be greater.

4. The Return of Christ Will See God’s Kingdom Come to Earth

Finally, Islam and Christianity have two different ways in which they view their faiths dominating the world. The Bible teaches, and most Christians believe, that it will be Christ and His Second Coming that will usher in the kingdom of God on the earth.

Islam is attempting to do this by it own methods of proclaiming its message. Muslims hope that the entire world will be conquered and thus become one Islamic state.

Therefore, Islam and Christianity, at the outset, have a number of crucial things that divide them. Consequently, the two faiths cannot be reconciled. At least one of them has to be wrong.

Those who attempt to reconcile the religions face two basic problems. First, there is complete disagreement over the essentials of the faith. There is no possible way to harmonize them.

Second, it fails to take seriously that each religion claims to be ultimate truth. Therefore it is disrespecting the claims of each group.

This sums up the early history of Islam as well as contrasting it with the Christian faith. As we can readily observe, the differences between the two faiths are legion.

Summary – Question 2
What Is the Early History of Islam?

A man named Muhammad, born around A.D. 570, in what is present-day Saudi Arabia, founded the religion of Islam. Followers of Muhammad are called Muslims. They are those who submit to the teaching of Islam. Since Islam is the second largest religion in the world it is important that we know something about its origins and early history.

However, one of the problems in attempting to discern the truth of Islam is the problem of sources. The earliest written sources about Islam come from a century and a half after Muhammad lived. They are from those who are sympathetic with Muhammad and his teachings. This must be kept in mind when evaluating Islam.

These sources include the Quran, the holy book of Islam, early traditions known as the hadith, and the biographies of Muhammad.

From these sources we learn that Muhammad claimed to receive the revelations from the true God, Allah. He claimed that he was proclaiming the same message as found in the Old and New Testament. These revelations, however, went beyond the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. Consequently, Islam is now the true religion. Muhammad therefore is the last and the greatest of the prophets.

Muhammad was a wealthy businessman living in the city of Mecca when he claimed to have received these visions from Allah. The message was that Allah was the only God who actually existed. Thus, these many other gods and idols that the people worshipped did not exist. Allah demanded worship of him and him alone. Judgment would fall upon those who rejected worship of him.

Eventually Muhammad won converts to his newly found faith. His armies were the first to unify all the tribes in that region. Islam then began its conquest of the remainder of the world and is still attempting world domination.

There are certain observations that we can make about the beginnings of Islam.

First, the records about Muhammad have nowhere near the reliability as those of Jesus even though the events occurred six hundred years later in history. The text of the New Testament has survived in an accurate manner. Indeed, we know that it says the same things as what was originally written. The same cannot be said for the Quran since there are a number of substantial variations of the text that has survived.

We also know that Muhammad’s contacts with Christians were from those who held heretical beliefs about Jesus. His misconceptions about Christianity and Christ are reflected in the Quran. In other words, he did not get the correct picture of Jesus.

There is also the difference as to how Islam spread. Rather than being spread by love, as was the gospel of Jesus Christ, Islam was spread by the sword. The prophet Muhammad led the way in this way of spreading the newfound faith.

Finally, while both Christianity and Islam desire to spread their message to the end of the earth, Christianity believed that will be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ that establishes God’s kingdom. Islam assumes the faithful can conquer the world through their own means.

While each claims to be “the” truth, it is obvious that they cannot both be true at the same time. At least one of these claims is wrong. The evidence will demonstrate that the facts are on the side of Jesus Christ and Christianity. His claims can be verified. The claims of Muhammad cannot.

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