Islam is the planet’s 2nd biggest religion, second only to Christianity. Problems between our Western Civilization and the Islamic movement are very relevant today. It is not simply a matter of historical interest. In our series we will learn about the geopolitical and theological aspects surrounding Islam. Where else could we begin than with the origins of the Muslim religion…
Often, people associate Islam with people of Arab descent. Arabs are an ethnicity whereas Islam is a religious system. The only reason the two are seemingly intertwined is that the prophet Mohamed and the first several generations of Muslims were from the Arabian Peninsula (modern day Saudi Arabia). As Islam spread throughout northern Africa, Asia Minor and south east Asia, the ethnic variability of Islam has changed drastically. Most Muslim immigrants to Europe and North America are from the Middle East, therefore most Westerners’ perspective of Islam is that it is synonimous with Arab descent. Yet there was a large variety of Arab peoples for thousands of years prior to the appearance of Islam.
Our oldest historical mention of the term “Arab” comes from an Akkadian text from the 9th century B.C. which speaks of Bedouin tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. The Old Testament book of 1 Kings (written circa 560 B.C.) also mentions the term “Arab.” According to biblical genealogical records, Noah’s son Shem saw his son Joktan’s lineage depart to the Arabian Peninsula possibly forming the earliest members of this ethnic group.
Common belief among biblical scholars is that Abraham’s son Ishmael is the father of the Arab world. There is no way to verify this because neither the Muslims or diverse Arabic tribes have any genealogical records. The biblical ancestries are only recorded for the line of Adam to Abraham and then through his second son Isaac onwards, not with Ishmael. The book of Judges records that many Ishmaelites intermarried with the Midianites, a tribe of people in the Arabian Peninsula. Further, the Hebrew Midrash text describes Ishmaelites as conquering portions of the Middle East. Orthodox Ethiopian churches have a second Genesis text (known as “Lesser Genesis”) which states that the Ishmaelites intermarried extensively with the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Interestingly, from a linguistics perspective, the classical Arab dialect is seen as being derived from Semitic languages. The reason for the attempted linking of Ishamel to the Muslim Arab peoples is that Genesis seems to imply that God prophesied that Abraham’s son Ishmael would be a “great nation” that would be a force to be reckoned with and be at war with all peoples. Many feel this is a fitting description of the Muslim world throughout its history.
Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions ranging from the 9th to 6th century B.C. as well as the biblical Genesis list the names of Ishmael’s sons but beyond this, there is no records linking them to the prophet Mohammed. Muslim scholars however, have always claimed to draw their ancestry back to Ishmael and to be the true recipients of the Old Testament God’s promise to Abraham’s first born. Scholar Muhammad Al-kalbi (A.D. 737-819) used biblical,, Syrian and Arabic written and oral records to attempt a genealogy from Ishmael to Mohammed. Yet because his sources are not still in existence, it is impossible to verify.
Muslims hold to their Abrahamic identity and so believe the first 5 books of the Old Testament (i.e.: the Pentateuch, or Torah) as well as all four New Testament Gospels are divinely inspired literature. They refer to them as pre-Qur’anic “Previous Scriptures.” Due to its claim to Abraham, Islam is, along with Judaism and Christianity, considered one of the three “Abrahamic Faiths.”
The Prophet Mohammed (A.D. 570 – 632)
Born in A.D. 570 in the Arab city of Mecca, Mohamed grew up fatherless and worked as a travelling merchant. According to Muslim tradition, on December 22, 609, Mohammed was praying in a cave when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and dictated the first portion of what eventually became known as the Muslim holy book: the Qur’an. For the next 22 years, Mohammed claimed to have been visited several times by Gabriel and that every word of the Qur’an is a direct dictation of the angel’s words during those meetings.
Our sources on Mohammed’s life come from his personal writings (i.e.: the Qur’an), the 8th and 9th century A.D. biographical works by Muslim historians, records by Mohammed’s personal secretary and the Hadith (record of the oral traditions of Mohammed’s actions compiled over a century after his life).
In A.D. 612, Mohammed began preaching and attempting to convert his family and fellow Meccans. Unfortunately for the upstart, self proclaimed prophet, not many people fancied his new religion. Fast forward to the year 620 and supposedly, the angel Gabriel took Mohammed on a supernatural voyage across the world. In Muslim tradition, this important event is know as the “Isra and Miraj.” Two years later, in A.D. 622, a group of leaders from another major Arabia city, Medina, hired Mohammed to mediate peace between several leading tribes of their region. He was successfully able to do so by drafting the “Constitution of Medina.”
Mohammed had brought a small band of followers to Medina and shortly after they began to raid merchant caravans in the surrounding regions. As their buccaneering progressed, so did their wealth and numbers. Thus formed the genesis of the Islamic faith: militant conquest. A major event in early Islam occurred when Mohammed and his raiding Muslim warriors overthrew a well guarded and very wealthy Syrian caravan travelling through the town of Qurayza. Significantly outmatched, the Muslims nonetheless prevailed and Mohammed saw this as a sign of Allah’s blessing on his prophethood. It was during these military years that the progressive work of Mohammed’s writings (i.e.: the Qur’an, which he continued until his death) took on a militaristic tone and the concept of jihad emerged.
In Qurayza a local group of Jewish citizens were given the standard order of the militant Islamic army: convert or be killed. Refusing to bow the knee to Mohammed, most of the Jewish men met the fate that has befallen millions of non-muslim prisoners over the last millennia and a half: beheading.
In A.D. 630, Mohammed and 10,000 Muslim soldiers marched into Mecca and conquered it. Before his death in 632, Mohammed’s armies had subdued the entire Arabian Peninsula.
In his old age, Mohammed married a 6 year old girl and consummated the marriage 3 years later when she was just 9. This is why the phenomenon of child brides has consistently followed the Muslim world.
After his death, Mohammed’s empire was to go through a major expansion, led by the first Caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr.This would take a militant “faith” that its founder had placed over the entire Arab world and grow it to cover most of the former Roman Empire and parts of Asia and the Pacific islands. This will be the subject of our next installment.
(see Part 2 in our series.)