The place to begin this story is about 570 CE, with the birth of Muhammad, in Mecca.
At the time Mecca was a site of ritual pilgrimage for people from all over Arabia, largely nomadic tribes. The people of Mecca were involved in trade, especially the long-distance caravan trade to the north, Syria and the Mediterranean. Some histories have argued that Mecca was key in the spice trade, an entrepot between the far east and the Mediterranean world. But others argue that the Meccans mainly traded goods of settled society–metal or manufactured goods for leather and animal products from nomads, for example.
The predominant religion was a kind of polytheistic animism, in which local peoples worshipped a variety of mostly local deities. In fact Al Lah (“The God,” in Arabic) was one amongst many. Representations of these deities were placed in the Ka’aba, a structure which tradition says was built by Abraham, centered around a large black rock, possibly of meteoric origin, which is now enshrined at the center of the Ka’aba.
Monotheism was not unknown; there were Nestorian Christians in the neighborhood, and there were Jews, especially a little to the north in Medina.
In about 610 Muhammad, working as a merchant for the woman who was to become his first wife (Khadijah), began to visit a cave outside the city as a kind of retreat. On one of these visits he began receiving revelations from the Angel Gabriel. A force gripped him, say the sources, and a voice told him to “Recite!” The words which followed formed part of a long series of revelations, which would last the rest of his life, and ultimately–long after his death–be written down and collected into the Qur’an, Islam’s holy text.
What was the message?
Perhaps the foundational idea in all these revelations was that there was one god, and that Muhammad was his prophet. This god was the creator and sustainer of everything, and the message he brought to mankind was the final one.
In the context of seventh-century Mecca, this was a game changer. The Ka’aba as pilgrimage center was vital to Mecca’s existence. The major clan that presided over it had more than an ideological stake in Mecca’s support of polytheism–the center drew visitors from far away who needed food and…