Islam is the second largest religion followed by 1.6 billion people, which constitutes about 23.4 % of the world population. The followers of Islam are called Muslims. Muslims believe Islam is the revelation of God which came through the Prophet Mohammed. Their holy book, the Quran, contains the revelations given to their Prophet by the angel Gabriel. The words and actions of the life of Mohammed are constituted under the Ahadis, meaning Tradition. Along with the Quran, Mohammed’s life and words are the standards for behaviour and moral life in Islam . Islam teaches strict Monotheism and the word Islam is translated as “surrender to the will of God”.
Origin and Spread:
Islam originated in Arabia in 7th century A.D . The exact year of the origin of Islam is 622 A.D. This is the first year of the Islamic calender. This year marks the migration of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina. The origin of the revelations which came to Mohammed dates back to the year 610. Mohammed, a 40 year old man, had the habit of spending time in contemplation and meditation in a cave. One such day, the angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to him and asked him to write down whatever he recited. These revelations from Gabriel continued on and off over the next 23 years. They were collected verbatim and constitute the Quran, the holy book of the Muslims. Mohammed took this message to the people of Mecca who were polytheists. They rejected his message. But he gathered a group of followers , who were persecuted along with him in Mecca. The persecution was very severe and in the midst of all this, the death of his protector and guardian Abu Talib constrained Mohammed and his followers to migrate to Medina. This incident is called the Hijra and marks the first year of the Islamic Calender, which is A.D 622.
In Medina, Mohammed mediated and solved problems and became a prominent and respected member of the City of Medina. There his messages was accepted. From Medina, Mohammed raided the caravans of the Meccans and finally defeated the Meccans in year 630 after a series of conflicts , battles and treaties. Soon Mohammed battled the other Arabian tribes and defeated some of them. Seeing this the other tribes submited to him, and in 10 years from the time he came to Medina, all of Arabia was under Mohammed.
After the death of Prophet Mohammed, Abu Bakr became the first Caliph of the Islamic empire. His reign was short and lasted just 2 years. He was succeeded by Umar, who extended the Islamic empire to Syria, Egypt and Iraq. He ruled for ten years and was followed by Uthman, during whose period the Quran was compiled into a book and the after the assassination of Uthman by the Egyptian muslims, the caliphate came under the leadership of Ali and after his death entered a period of Civil War , called Fitna. This period from the first caliph Abu Bakr to Ali is called the ‘Period of the Rashidun’.
After the death of Ali, the Caliphate passed into the hands of the Ummayad clan and they transferred the Capital from Medina to Damascus and also brought an end to the practice of election of the Caliph by the Shura. From then on Islamic civilization entered into dynastic mode. The Ummayad embarked on an expansion spree and annexed the whole of north Africa, Spain and Portugal. They also extended into parts of central Asia. But because of unequal taxation, problems arose and the Abbasid gathered an army from northern Iran and took over the Caliphate from the hands of the Ummayads killing the prominent of them.The Abbasid after quelling uprisings entered an age of prosperity and cultural and scientific progress from their capital in Baghdad until 1258 when the mongols invaded Baghdad and put and end to the last caliph of the Islamic civilization.
After the destruction of Baghdad the Caliphate disintegrated and remained confined to the Ottoman Turkish empire. The Mongols themselves later embraced Islam, central Asia became Islamic, and the conquerors from central Asia(Turks) took Islam into India as a political force, though it was already present, brought in by traders. The Seljuk Turks took Islam into Turkey and also captured Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
Three factors contributed to the spread of Islam in Asia. These include: 1) The Political situation and the conversion of the rulers; 2) The work of Sufi missionaries, who integrated Islam with local practices and beliefs; 3) The Influx of Islamic traders, their success and subequent establishment of Islamic trading settlement in southeast Asia. These three factors combined and resulted in the spread of Islam and the establishment of Islam to different degrees in different regions in Asia.
Indonesia is at present the largest Islamic country in the world followed by India.
Table 1 from Patheos.com
Death of Muhammad 632 CE
Caliphate of Abu Bakr 632-634
Caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab 634-644
Caliphate of Uthman ibn Affan 644-656
Caliphate of Ali Ibn Abi Talib (cousin & son-in-law of Muhammad) 656-661
Fitna: first Islamic civil war 656-661
Arbitration between Ali and Mu’awiyah 658
Death of Ali ibn Abi Talib 661
Table 2 from Patheos.com
“Age of Rashidun” capital in Medina 632-661
Umayyad Caliphate capital in Damascus 661-750
Abbasid Caliphate capital in Baghdad 750-1258
Major Sects of Islam
Shia vs Sunni:
Sunnis and Shias were the earliest divisions in Islam which still persist even to this day. The main differences between the two sects are outlined in the table below.
*believe Muhammad named Ali as successor *Do not believe Muhammad named successor
*Muhammad’s family has sole claim to legitimate leadership *the Prophet’s companions have authoritative leadership
*rely on authoritative teaching of Muhammad’s descendants *rely on consensus (Arabic,ijma) of religions and religious scholars
Shi’a Leadership Sunni Leadership
Use title “imam” Use title “caliph”
Imam is intercessor Imam means “prayer leader” (not “intercessor”
Iman is descendant of Muhammad Imam is not a descendant
Imam is a religious and political leader Caliph is only a political leader
Sufism : Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam in which participants long to have an mystical experience with God through meditation , devotion and contemplation. It was a reaction to the materialism and formalism which crept into Islam during the Ummayad Caliphate. It is similar to the monasticism of the Christian tradition .
A short critique:
1. Islam spread by the sword. Right from the time of Mohammed, it was “Surrender to Islam or die” . The first three Caliphs were very strict in implementing this policy. But from the time of Ummayad dynasty, the policy got slightly diluted as materialism crept in, as conversion to Islam would mean loss of non – muslim taxes. Islam from it’s very inception is a ‘state-forming religion’. Violence was the the primary mode for the spread of Islam. Terrorism seems to be inherent and native to the Islam of Prophet Mohammed, especially after he acquired political power. Islamic extremists can find a lot of support from the life of the Prophet and the Caliphs.
2. Christianity on the other hand did not have any political support in the first three hundred years. It spread purely by the work of missionaries and Church planters. States became Christian as the population and the rulers became Christian. Therefore, at it’s core Christianity is NOT a ‘state forming religion’. Separation of Church and State is a viable option with Christianity, whereas with Islam it would go against the precedent set by Prophet Mohammed. Therefore Violence was not the primary mode of spread of Christianity. Violence, according to the Bible and Jesus Christ is not an accepted way to usher in the Gospel. The Gospel spread by the sacrificial deaths of the martyrs and the work of the Holy Spirit.
3. One of the factors considered responsible for the spread of Islam in north Africa was the innumerable divisions within Christianity. North Africa, a Christian area, which gave rise to St. Augustine, became and remains to this day Islamic. Islam at that time of history provided a united face, which resulted in the loss of North Africa to Islam. This should warn us of the consequences of divisions over minor issues and constrains us to follow the teaching of Christ, who commanded us to witness for him through our love and unity. In John 13 Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”