Early History of Islam
It was founded in 622 CE by Mohammed the Prophet (circa 570 to 632 CE)
in Medina. It is the youngest of the world's great religions. Followers
of Islam are called Muslims. An alternate spelling that is
occasionally used is "Moslim"; it is not recommended because it is
often pronounced "mawzlem": which sounds like an Arabic word for
"oppressor". Some Western writers in the past have referred to Islam as
"Mohammedism"; this is deeply offensive to many Muslims, as its usage
can lead to the concept that Mohammed the Prophet was in some way divine.
Little is known about Muhammad's childhood. He was orphaned at the
age of 6 and brought up by his uncle. As a child, he worked as a
shepherd. He was taken on a caravan to Syria by his uncle at the
age of 9 (or perhaps 12). Later, as a youth, he was employed as a
camel driver on the trade routes between Syria and Arabia. Muhammad
later managed caravans on behalf of merchants. He met people of
different religious beliefs on his travels, and was able to observe
and learn about Judaism, Christianity and the indigenous Pagan
After marriage, he was able to spend more time in meditation. At the age
of 40, (610 CE), he was visited in Mecca by the angel Gabriel. He
developed the conviction that he had been ordained a Prophet and given
the task of converting his countrymen from their pagan, polytheistic
beliefs and what he regarded as moral decadence, idolatry, hedonism and
He met considerable opposition to his teachings. In 622 CE he moved north to
Medina due to increasing persecution. The trek is known as the hegira
. Here he was disappointed by the rejection of his message by the Jews.
Through military activity and political negotiation, Mohammed became the
most powerful leader in Arabia, and Islam was firmly established in the
By 750 CE, Islam had expanded to China, India, along the Southern shore
of the Mediterranean and into Spain. By 1550 they had reached Vienna.
Wars resulted, expelling Muslims from Spain and Europe. Since their
trading routes were mostly over land, they did not an develop extensive
sea trade (as for example the English and Spaniards). As a result, the
old world occupation of North America was left to Christians.
Believers are currently concentrated from the West coast of Africa to the
Philippines. In Africa, in particular, they are increasing in numbers,
largely at the expense of Christianity.
Totaling approximately 1 billion believers, they form the second largest
religion in the world. The number of Muslims in North America is in
dispute: estimates range from under 3 million to over 6 million. The
main cause of the disagreement appears to be over how many Muslim immigrants have
converted to Christianity. Statistics Canada reports that 253,260
Canadians identified themselves as Muslims (0.9% of the total population)
during the 1991 census. Those figures are believed to be an under-estimate;
Islam is growing in numbers.
There are two texts:
- the Qu'ran are the words of Allah. This was originally in oral
and written form; they were later assembled together into a single book,
the Qu'ran. Its name is often spelled "Koran" in English. This is
not recommended, as some Muslims find it offensive.
- The Hadith, which are collections of the sayings of Mohammed.
Muslim Beliefs and Practices
Muslims follow a lunar calendar which started with the hegira,
a 300 mile trek in 622 CE when Mohammed relocated from Mecca to Medina.
A Muslim's duties as described in the Five Pillars of Islam are:
- to recite at least once during their lifetime the shahadah
(the creed: "There is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet"). Most
repeat it at least daily.
- to perform the salat (prayer) 5 times a day. This is recited
while orienting one's body towards Mecca. It is done in the morning, at
noon, midafternoon, after sunset and just before sleeping.
- to donate regularly to charity through zakat, a 2.5% charity
tax, and through additional donations to the needy as the individual believer
- to fast during the month of Ramadan [began 1995-FEB-2, 1995 (Year 1415);
begins 1996-JAN-22 (Year 1416) and 1997-JAN-10 (Year 1417)]. This is believed
to be the month that Mohammed received the Qu'ran from Allah.
- if economically and physically, to make at least one hajj
(pilgrimage) to Mecca
Jihad (struggle) is probably the most misunderstood religious
word in existence. It often mentioned on Western TV and radio during
news about the Middle East, where it is implied to be a synonym of "holy
war" - a call to fight against non-Muslims in the defense of Islam.
The vast majority of Muslims of Muslims have an entirely different
definition of Jihad. It is seen as a personal, internal struggle with
one's self. The goal may be achievement in a profession, self-purification,
the conquering of primitive instincts or the attainment of some other noble
- strict monotheism. God is the creator, is just, omnipotent and merciful
- respect for earlier prophets and belief in their teachings: Abraham,
Moses and Jesus
- that Mohammed is the last of the prophets
- belief in the existence of Satan who drives people to sin
- that Muslims who sincerely repent and submit to God return to a state of
- belief in Hell where unbelievers and sinners spend eternity
- belief in Paradise, a place of physical and spiritual pleasure where
the sinless go after death
- abstinence from alcohol and gambling
- rejection of racism
- avoid the use of alcohol, other drugs, eating of pork, etc
- avoid gambling
- that Jesus is a prophet. They regard the Christian concept of
the deity of Jesus to be blasphemous
- that Jesus was not executed on the cross
Originally, in Islamic countries, there was no separation between religious
and civil law, between Islam and the state. Turkey and some other countries
have become secular states during this century. This is a controversial
move in Islamic circles.
There are four different schools of jurisprudence within Islam. Much blood
has been spilt over disputes between them. The main schools are:
- Followers of the Hanafi school are called Sunni Muslims
and constitute a 90% majority of the believers. They
are considered to be main stream traditionalists. Because they are
comfortable pursuing their faith within secular societies, they have been
able to adapt to a variety of national cultures, while following their
three sources of law: the Quran, Hadith and consensus of Muslims.
- Followers of the Jafri school are called Shi'ite Muslims and
constitute a small minority of Islam. They split from the Sunnis over a
dispute about the successor to Mohammed. Their leaders, Imams
promote a strict interpretation of the Qu'ran and close adherents to its
teachings. They believe in 12 heavenly Imams (perfect teachers) who guide
the faithful from their locations in Paradise.
There are three other groups which originated within Islam:
- Sufism: a mystic tradition in which followers seek inner knowledge
directly from Allah through meditation and ritual and dancing. They
developed in the 7th century CE as an ascetic reaction to the formalism
and laws of the Qu'ran.
- Baha'i: an attempt to integrate all of the
world religions. It was originally a break-away sect from Islam but has
since grown to become a separate religion.
- Black Muslim Movement (BMM): This is largely a black urban movement in
the US. One driving force was a rejection of Christianity as the religion of the
historically oppressing white race. It was started by Wallace Fard who
built the first temple in Detroit. Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Poole)
established a second temple in Chicago and later supervised the creation
of temples in most large cities with significant black populations.
They taught that blacks were racially superior to whites and that a racial
war is inevitable. The charismatic Malcolm X was perhaps their most famous
spokesperson; he plaid an important role in reversing the BMM's anti-white
beliefs. In its earlier years, the movement deviated significantly from
traditional Islamic beliefs (particularly over matters of racial tolerance
the status of the BMM leaders as prophets). This deviation is being
http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~calmsa/calmsa.html for an impressive
home page maintained by the Caltich Muslim Student Association (MSA).
It includes essays on Islam and many links to other Islamic WWW sites.
Return to the OCRT home page.