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ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
When, where, and how did the religion begin?
by John Kaltner

Islam traces its roots to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE), who is one of the most important and influential religious figures in human history. Muhammad lived his entire life in an area known as the Hijaz, which is found in the western portion of the Arabian Peninsula in what is now Saudi Arabia.

Very little is known about Muhammad’s life prior to his prophetic career. He was orphaned at a young age and was raised by a paternal uncle named Abu Talib. He spent most of his life in Mecca, an economic and religious center that was the largest city in the Hijaz. Mecca was located on the main travel route that merchants took as they transported their goods to and from places as far away as India, and this meant many travelers and visitors would stop in the city to rest and replenish their supplies.

Mecca also attracted many guests because it housed the Ka`ba, a religious shrine that was a popular pilgrimage destination. The dominant Arabian religion at that time was polytheism, and sources tell us that as many as 360 gods were housed in the Ka`ba during the period just prior to the rise of Islam. Many Arabs would travel great distances to visit this holy site, particularly during those times of the year that were set aside for pilgrimage. Like the commercial travelers who passed through the city, this large influx of visitors required lodging, food, and other services, and they therefore had a very positive effect on the Meccan economy.

Like many Meccans, Muhammad made his living in commerce and trade. At the age of twenty-five he married his boss—she may have owned the company he worked for—a woman named Khadijah, who was about fifteen years older than Muhammad. He never married another woman while she was alive and she was a source of comfort and strength in the early years of his prophetic career.

The turning point of Muhammad’s life occurred when he was about forty years old. According to Islamic sources, Muhammad frequently went off on his own to pray in a cave on Mount Hira. One day in the year 610 while he was engaged in prayer a voice spoke to him and commanded, “Recite!” This was the first experience of what Muhammad and his followers would come to see as a series of revelations from God that would continue throughout the remaining twenty-two years of his life.

The voice was understood to be that of the angel Gabriel and the revelations would eventually be gathered together into a book that was called the Qur’an. After a period of initial confusion and doubt, Muhammad came to view himself as a prophet who had been chosen by God to deliver a message of monotheism to the people of Mecca, who were urged to leave behind their polytheistic ways and embrace worship of the one true God. The name given to this form of religion was islam, an Arabic term meaning “submission,” which underscored the believer’s attitude of surrender in the face of God’s authority and power.

Muhammad’s message was not well received in Mecca. He was able to gain a relatively small following, but many rejected it outright. There was a very pragmatic reason why some refused to accept his teaching—if they dismantled the polytheistic system currently in place, people would stop making pilgrimages to the Ka`ba, and Mecca would lose a significant amount of income. Reactions became so hostile that Muhammad began to fear for the safety of his followers. The early Islamic sources contain many references to the threats and dangers Muhammad and the early Muslims endured at the hands of the Meccans.

Muhammad’s fortune turned in 622, when the inhabitants of Yathrib asked him to come and live among them. Located about 250 miles north of Mecca, Yathrib had a significant Jewish population, and Muhammad had been invited to serve as a judge for the various factions living in the area. He left Mecca under the cover of darkness and made the journey with a small group of followers.

Although they sometimes experienced problems with their new neighbors, in this environment the Muslim community was able to grow and develop without the tensions that confronted them in Mecca. Muhammad spent the rest of his life in Yathrib, where he is buried. It became so closely identified with him that its name was changed to madinat al-nabi (“city of the prophet” in Arabic), which is usually shortened to Medina (“city”).

Muhammad’s final task was to convert his hometown of Mecca to the new religion of Islam. After a number of pilgrimages to the city, he was eventually able to win over the leading citizens of the city, and the rest of the population soon followed. The story of how he entered Mecca and transformed the Ka`ba into a shrine commemorating worship of the only God is one of the most celebrated traditions in Islamic lore. By the time Muhammad died in 632 Islam was present throughout the entire Arabian Peninsula and was poised to spread throughout much of the known world.

Copyright ©2007 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999)

What Do Our Neighbors Believe?
This excerpt from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner is used with permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.
To purchase a copy of WHAT DO OUR NEIGHBORS BELIEVE? visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users.



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