When, where, and how did the religion begin?
by John Kaltner
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
©2007 John Kaltner
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
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999)
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