Early Islam  

  Blue Mosque

The "Blue Mosque" (Sultan Ahmet Camil aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque), Istanbul, constructed 1609-1616 CE; Photo credit Marie McDowell

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Islam, which originated on the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century CE, grew to become the third major monotheistic religion (along with Judaism and Christianity) in the Western world. Much like Christianity, Islam owed its origins to a single man and was extremely small and persecuted when it began. But the religion, and the armies that spread it, fanned out from the Arabian Peninsula and soon controlled most of the Near East and North Africa, and even some of Europe. Although Islam spread with the sword--Please remember that Christianity was also spread by the sword--conversion to the religion itself was usually not undertaken at sword point. (That was not the case with Christianity.)

As Islam grew into a world religion, it simultaneously became a new world empire. As such, it is often not realized that Islam inherited much from its predecessors, particularly the ancient Roman and Greek worlds. (In turn, Christian Europe would later, in the Middle Ages, also learn much from the Islamic community.) In fact, the empire created by Islam became one of the three main inheritors of the territory of the former Roman Empire, the others being the Byzantine Empire and the barbarian kingdoms in western Europe.

The prophet Muhammad (570?-632 CE), the founder of Islam, was one of the world's great prophets and a teacher of ethical behavior. (See the Prophet Muhammad's Last Sermon.) The Qur'an asserts that he was a continuation of the Judeo-Christian prophets (actually, the "seal of the prophets"). Like Jesus of Nazareth, he only began his religious work relatively late in his life. Originally he was an outcast from his tribe in Mecca before finding a receptive community in Medina (aka Yathrib). Eventually, he then returned to Mecca, set up a religious community and then proceeded to unify the Arab tribes of Arabia into that community.

After his death questions arose about who should be elected to continue to lead the faith; whether that person should be a relative directly connected to the family of Muhammad (Shia Islam) or not (Sunni Islam)--there are several other important differences between Sunni and Shia that I am not going to cover at this time.

Despite the question of leadership, Islam continued to expand rapidly throughout the Mediterranean and eastward towards India. In only about a century's time, the Islamic world extended from Spain to India.

The Abbasid caliphate, 750-1258 CE--Baghdad was its capital--was a real cultural and socio-economic focal point for Islam. Baghdad became a center of science, culture, philosophy and invention in what became known as the "Golden Age of Islam." (Wikipedia) Eventually rival dynasties arose in different regions of the Mediterranean world by about 1000 CE, and that lead to a breakup of the caliphate's original unity. There is a very nice summary in Wikipedia of some of the philosophical, scientific, medical, architectural, etc. achievements of the Abbasid caliphate.

Unfortunately, many people in the West today do not recognize Islam as a major component of Western civilization. Instead, the tendency is to view Islam as a religion of some distant desert people, way off in the Near East, but Islam is very much Western. Muhammad was a prophet, as Jesus of Nazareth, Moses and Isaiah had been. Muhammad claimed to put right a monotheistic faith gone wrong. Muhammad, in fact, recognized most of the work of the previous Hebrew prophets. In addition, Muslims came into contact with, and borrowed much from, the Greek intellectual and scientific heritage and from Rome's political history.

Please remember that the Qur'an is not the "Muslim bible." There is a distinction. According to Muslims, the Qur'an is the exact word of God, delivered through Muhammad and recorded in Arabic. The Holy Bible, however, is only the inspired word of men; it is not God's literal word. The Hadith that we read in the course are not part of the Qur'an, but are, instead, "traditions" associated with the life and teaching of Muhammad that shed light on the writings in the Qur'an. Most of the Hadith are short incidents from Muhammad's life that help to explain the purposes and ideas of the new religion.

Some recommended online lectures and websites:


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