A Quick Guide to Islam
Islam is the second largest world religion, with more than 1.6 billion followers worldwide, and considered by some to be the fastest growing. Islam is the most recent of the 3 major Abrahamic religions, following Judaism and Christianity. The word Islam means “Submission to the will of God.”
Almost two-thirds of Muslims live in the South Asia and Pacific countries, with Indonesia being the largest Muslim-majority country. It’s also the major religion throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
In Islam, God is also referred to by “Allah,” the word’s Arabic translation. The Qur’an instructs Muslims to be respectful of the other ‘People of the Book,’ meaning Jews and Christians. And though there has been plenty of conflict, historically Jews and Christians have faced less persecution under Islamic rule than Jews and Muslims under Christianity.
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Islam begins to take shape in Mecca, around 613 CE, offering a sequel to the other Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Christianity.
In this third installment, the archangel Gabriel shows up on Mount Hira to confirm to a merchant named Muhammad that there is indeed just the one God, he’s supremely powerful, but also merciful, and that Muhammad needs to go remind the masses. This divine message upgrades Muhammad to Prophet status, making him the most recent and important prophet in Islam, which is not easy considering your competition is Jesus and Moses.
But the powers that be (in this case, Mecca’s traders) aren’t psyched with Muhammad and his band of hard-won converts, and want to kill him. So Muhammad seeks refuge in the oasis of Yathrib. On the Muslim Calendar, this is Year 1.
Yathrib is renamed Medina, loosely translated to “City of the Prophet” and Muhammad really grows his flock. He decides he needs to jot done these Godly notes, so he and his followers draft the first edition of the Qur’an (with the final revision being published around 650).
Though he’s popular in Medina, Mecca’s still just not that into him, so he decides he needs to make public relations push there. So in 629, Muhammad and his fellow Medina Muslims make the first pilgrimage into Mecca, winning over its citizens and converting them in the masses. And Mecca is hereby established as the Holy City of Islam.
Muhammad doesn’t get to enjoy his success for long and he dies without leaving a successor. A dude named Abu Bakr, the father of one of Muhammad’s wives, is ultimately chosen to lead as the first caliph, and the march to expand the Muslim world begins.
The First of the Sunni Shi’a Split
By the time the fourth caliph Ali is assassinated in 661, Islam has already been established throughout the Middle East and even into North Africa. A leader of the coup against Ali, Mu’awiya of Umayya, proclaims himself the new caliph with the additional stipulation that succession will henceforth be hereditary. This is the beginning of 90 years of the Umayyad dynasty, and its followers became the modern-day Sunnis.
But not everyone thought this Mu’awiya was the best choice for Islam’s CEO, and a political party called Shi’at Ali (party of Ali) emerged trying to position one of Ali’s sons as successor. Their plot ultimately fails, but the rift is set.
Around this time, a third sect also begins to form, called the Sufis, named for the austere-chic wool clothes they adopted as their uniform. They felt Islam was getting corrupted, and wanted to bring the religion back to its roots, with a focus on mysticism and purity. And though the Sufi movement never really gained steam, it still exists today.
Road to Expansion
The next few centuries read as a where’s where of political and military rebellion, uprising, and mostly expansion, and Arabic slowly replaced Aramaic, Coptic and other regional languages, uniting the growing Muslim world.
Not all of Islam’s territorial gains were made by force, however. It was merchants who peddled the religion along with their wares via trade routes along eastern Africa, and eventually through the Sahara.
The conversion in South and Southeastern Asia, however, was not so easy nor peaceful, as Hindu had been firmly embedded in the region’s culture for millennia. Islam did make gains along the northwestern border of India, and by the beginning of the 14th century merchants from those areas had brought the religion to Sumatra and then into Java and the Malay Peninsula. By the 16th century, the areas of current-day Indonesia and Malaysia were officially Muslim majorities.
Modern Muslim History
These gains had resulted in three Muslim hubs by the 16th Century: The Ottoman Empire, The Safavid Empire and South Asia’s Mughal Empire. Islam became further tied to government and nationalism in some countries such as Saudi Arabia, and separated in countries like Turkey and Egypt. Growth slowed, though battles were still fought between Sunnis and Shi’as, as well as with Islam outsiders.
Then in 1967, one conflict in particular, that of the mostly Muslim Arabs and Jews came to a head with the establishment of the State of Israel in what was formerly Palestine. Since that day, Israel and the remaining Palestinian region have engaged in war, and near constant battling and negotiating, while the rest of the world has looked on and taken sides.