The rise and development of Islam


Derived from both Judaism and Christianity, Islam was a religion that claimed prophets from both religions (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, & Jesus), and saw itself as sharing the same God with these two religions, with Muhammad being the last prophet.  The Muslims saw themselves as descendants of Abraham, the ancestor of the Jews, and in particular, the descendants of  Ishmael, Abraham's elder son by his Egyptian bondmaid.

Unlike the first two religions which were compiled by different people over time, Islam (submitting to God) came exclusively from the revelations of God to Mohammed (the Koran) and words and deeds of Mohammed (the Sunna). Islamic law is based on the sunna.

Codified only a couple hundred years after the foundation of Islam, the Shari'ah, or law of Islam installed permanently the Arabic order of society on subsequent generations.

Background of Muhammad (570-632)

An orphan from a poor Bedouin tribe, and influence of Judaism and Monophysite Christianity (that the divine and the human Jesus were integrated in the same body) in the Byzantine Empire.

From 610, at 40, Muhammad started to receive revelations from God, which he would later recite in front of audiences.  These recitations were called the Qur'an, or "Recitation,"  and formed the heart of Islam.

Muhammad considered himself a "Messenger of God," but the wealthy and powerful clans were against him, partly because the revelations recited by Muhammad were often specifically directed against them, particularly in the direct commands to redistribute wealth. Muhammad's new religion largely appealed to the unfortunate of Mecca: foreigners who were not protected by any clan, members of poor clans, and the children of the wealthiest clans who had fallen out of favor or somehow lost their inheritance.

In 620 Muhammad went to Yathrib.  The city consisted of a majority of Arabic clans and a minority of Jewish clans. Through blood-feuds violence in Yathrib slowly spread to almost every clan.  They were quickly converted to Muhammad's new religion and the city was renamed Medinah.  

The Hijrah: Muhammad went back to Mecca and got over 75 new followers in 622.  They quietly slipped out of Mecca and went to Medina.  This journey to Medina was the Hijrah and it is from this year that the Muslim calendar begins. While normally translated "pilgrimage," Hijra means something like "severing ties with your relatives." 

It was from Medinah that Muhammad formally severed his ties with Judaism. 

Rise of Mecca as the Islamic center: The pre-Islamic Arabs worshipped many deities. Among the gods they worshipped was Allah—probably derived from the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity. Mecca was the center of this religion with its Ka'ba, or "Cube," which served as the temple for the religion. In 630 Muhammad went back to Mecca and defeated the wealthy clans there, and established Mecca as the "capital," so to speak, of Islam, although Medinah and Jerusalem also remained holy Islamic cities. He also destroyed all the icons of gods/goddesses.

   The Koran (Qur'an)

 The Qur'an was an oral text throughout the lifetime of Muhammad; it was also a fluid text. The complete text resided only in the memories of Muahmmad and his followers. As he added verses and reorganized the text, his followers would rememorize the text in the light of the additions or edits. This means that the Qur'an was a living text during the lifetime of Muhammad. Certain verses revealed to Muhammad were later repudiated by him as "satanic" verses revealed not by Gabriel but by Satan. These verses were expunged from the text that so many had memorized.

Comparison between Islam and Monophysite Christianity

When Muhammad died in 632, he left a political organization that was entirely centered around him. He was a political and military leader and he was the source of revelation. When political or social difficulties came up, not only would they center on Muhammad, but sometimes through revelation be mediated by Allah himself.  Muhammad, however, never claimed himself to be divine.

Monophysite Christianity: influential in the Byzantine Empire that argued the divine and human natures of Jesus were unified.  This was in contrast to the orthodox definition that Jesus had two natures, one completely human and the other completely divine, and that they were not simultaneously present.


Islam and human value

While Islam adopts the Judeo-Christian idea of the fall, humanity is in general glorified in foundational and later Islam. Despite the Fall, humanity has the power to discern the unity of God and the reflection of the nature of God in creation. At the core of the Islamic message is that it is possible for human beings to live a perfect life in relationship to God.

Islam is world-affirming. As a corollary to the generally optimistic view that Islam takes towards humanity, it also construes the created world as fundamentally a good place that was designed for the use and enjoyment of humanity.  Thus marriages for priests and interest in (the pagan) Greek and Roman science and technology.

The goal of individual life is to attain an afterlife within one of the heavens described in the Qur'an and to avoid one of the numerous hells.  one's activities in this life over which one has complete responsibility.  In that sense, it's not fair to describe Islam as a salvation religion; unlike salvation religions, Islam requires the active, ethical participation of the faithful in every circumstance of the conduct of their lives.   In Christianity, a salvation religion, on the other hand, it has been believed that individual efforts will never suffice in achieving one's salvation, without the blessings of God.

Therefore, regarding the relationship between Islam and human values, we say that:

To Muslims, human beings are completely responsible for their own deeds, consequently their afterlife; and that all good Muslims could imitate the life of Muhammad, consequently achieving a perfect life.


Unlike early Christian fathers such as St. Augustine who contrasted logic and faith as two polarized things, and decided that logic should be dispensed with because it was misleading, and salvation was through the grace of God.  Islam postulates that rationality is the highest function given to human beings and that no "faith" is legitimate without it. What iman means, then, is something closer to "reasoned faith."

Islamic practices

More than Judaism and Christianity, Islam emphasizes practice over theory.

Five pillars of Islam:

  • Profession of faith (No God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet)
  • Prayers five times a day and collective prayers on Friday.
  • Almsgiving.
  • Observing Ramadan (the 9th month in the Muslim year to commemorate the time when the Koran was first revealed to Muhammad).
  • Pilgrimage to Mecca.

Rapid expansion of Islam and reasons

  • Bedouin tribes: from disunity to unity.
  • The unifying force of the Arabic language.
  • Muslim administrative policies: religious and political tolerance, but a strong taxation system.

Muslim and Frank confrontations in Spain and France (700s).

Islam after Muhammad: the caliphs and Imams

Upon the death of Muhammad, the issue of succession came up.  In the end, however, Muhammad's father-in-law, Abu Bakr, was named the khalifa or "Successor" of Muhammad.  Unlike Muhammad, however, Abu Bakr was not a prophet and would not receive divine revelations.  Muslim administration would from now on depend on the codification of the Koran and the sunna. The first four caliphs were relatives and followers of Muhammad.

Ali, the son in law of Muhammad and the fourth caliph, attracted a group of followers on his own, especially after he was assassinated by rival groups.  In Iraq a separate Islamic community recognized only the successors to Ali as authorities, and they gave these successors the title Imam, or spiritual leader of Islam.

Muslim schism: the Sunnies and Shiites

Sunnies: followers of the law (sunna): most Muslim states today; emphasis on political and military administration of the caliphs.

Shiites: emphasis on religious leadership and followers of Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and fourth caliph (later on murdered).

The Muslims who supported 'Ali called themselves the "Partisans of 'Ali" (Shi'a 'Ali); The Imam has secret knowledge of God and creation; the most important of these secrets is "The Greatest Name of God." The Imams are designated or appointed by God and they are free from all sin or fault; therefore, they are the most perfect of humans. But above all, the Imam is the one who teaches human beings the mystical truths of the universe.

Sunnies tended to concentrate on the coast of Asia Minor while the Shiites in the less economically advanced inland regions (e.g. Iraq).

Muslims’ attitude toward Christians

Muslims decided Christianity was off the mark because of its theological difficulty (compared with Islamic simplicity), but there were good Christians.

Islam does not reject other religions. Fundamental to the Islamic message is that all religions are based on the singularity and unity of God; some religions, however, have fallen away from this message (such as Christianity which divides God into Father and Son), but the essential message of all religions is this unity of God.