Middle East Primer 2: Early Islam

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 shelter–and were prepared to pay for it.

But in claiming that the polytheists were misguided, Muhammad and his followers insulted not just the other Meccans, but their ancestors who they claimed were in Hell.

Other foundational ideas (the rest of the “Five Pillars” of Islam) included the obligation of alms-giving (charity); pilgrimage to Mecca (the Ka’aba) was a major religious duty once a year; self-purification through fasting (like they do during Ramadan, the Holy Month); and the five daily prayers.

Powerful forces in Mecca opposed Muhammad and his growing followers, and life there became untenable. Eventually, in 622, Muhammad and his community of believers were invited to reside in Medina, where the Islamic community gained strength quickly. To make a long and complex story short and simple…the cold war with the Meccans turned hot, and the Muslims eventually defeated Mecca militarily, during several historic battles, and over the subsequent decade united the multiple and diverse tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.

This all happened in Muhammad’s lifetime. Conversion in the peninsula was, like conversion the world over, a complex affair and involved often more than pure religious conviction. There were political, military and commercial interests in play as well.

Once the peninsula was united under one leadership, the Arab tribes turned north, and in the ninth and tenth centuries they conquered Egypt and large parts of what is today Syria, Iraq and Iran, extending their influence to India eventually, as well as west along the North African coast.

Islam’s expansion out of Arabia should be understood in political, economic as well as religious terms. Treaties made between the tribes of the peninsula negated the possibility of inter-tribal raiding, which had for centuries been a staple of the local economy. No longer able to raid each others’ camps, the focus of this activity had to turn to more distant targets. The Islamic empire had begun.

Want to know more?

Read Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, is a good popular history of religion.

Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, by a venerable Oxford historian.

Or watch PBS’s Islam: Empire of Faith, on Netflix!

Or go to your neighborhood mosque and ask to talk to the Imam. Seriously!

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