Islam - A Brief History

The Exordium*

In the name of God
The Compassionate
The Merciful 1:1

Praise be to God, Lord of Worlds,1:2
The Beneficent, the Merciful, 1:3
Sovereign of the Day of Judgment! 1:4
You alone we worship, and to You alone
We turn for help.
Guide us to the straight path, 1:6
The path of those whom You have favored,
Not of those who have incurred Your wrath,
Nor of those who have gone astray.1:7

*Koran begins with the above introduction

Muhammad and the Koran

Muhammad (570-632 A.D.) was a posthumous child of 'Abdullah bin' Abd al-Muttalib, of the tribe of Quraysh of Mecca. Mother Aminah died when he was but a child and Muhammad traveled extensively in caravans between Mecca and Syria as a young child. He gained reputation for honesty and wisdom. He was brought up by his grandfather, Abdul Muttalib and then by his uncle Abu Talib. In 583, at age 12, he met monk Bahira at Bisra, who predicted and foretold the future prophet-hood of Muhammad. When he was twenty-five (circa 595 A.D.), he married a rich widow, Khadijah (555-619), fifteen years his senior. He had been working as the manager of her business and had led her caravans to Syria before he married her.

Muhammad was in the habit of meditating and spending his time in solitude in the caves of Mt. Hira, in Mecca. Here he would immerse himself in prayer. One night of Ramadan (610 A.D.), when Muhammad was forty years old, Angel Gabriel (Jibril) was said to have appeared before him and recited the Koran. Terrified Muhammad tried to flee at first, but the Angel convinced him to listen to the word of God, through him. These words revealed to Muhammad came to be known as the Koran. Muhammad was illiterate and could neither read or write. However, he was able to recite the literary masterpiece of Koran to his disciples in a flawless manner. This feat of producing a perfect document by an illiterate man is considered to be a miracle, only one performed by Muhammad.

Prophet Muhammad delivered the Koran (Quran) at a time in history when the Jews and Christians were constantly fighting with each other for superiority of religion. Muhammad was impressed by a small group of theists called Hanifs in Kabbah at Mecca. They had already formed a spiritually fundamental religion of their own and worshipped Allah as their God. They renounced idolatry as practiced by the Arabian pagans, who were already in decline by that time. However the Christians and Jews, though prophesying a monotheistic religion, were constantly bickering among themselves for superiority. The holy Kabbah established by Abraham had been transformed into a place of argument and every family had installed its own idol of worship. There was struggle for superiority amongst these families of pagans that led to discord and discontent among the tribes. Muhammad believed that the Jews and Christians had gone astray and corrupted the God's scriptures by dividing into different sects and beliefs. He accused Christians of worshipping Jesus as God, when he merely was a messenger of God and had expressly forbidden such worship.

Muhammad believed that only Islam (submission) could bring all the misguided people back into the fold of the glory of One God, Allah. Islam preaches absolute submission or resignation to the will of God. Muhammad believed that this was the true religion preached by Abraham but later distorted by the Jews and Christians (who are referred to the People of the Book - dhimmis). Islam accepts the previous prophets like Noah, Moses and Jesus etcetera, but Muhammad is considered to be the last and the most authoritative.

In the year 622, Muhammad migrated to a small town of Yathrib, North of Mecca when the Quraysh tribe in Mecca refused to follow his teachings. This migration is called the hijrat and the town of Yathrib was renamed as Medina, of which Muhammad became the ruler. For the next eight years battles were fought between the Quraysh of Mecca and the Muslims. In 624, in the Battle of Badr, the Muslims defeated the Quraysh only to be beaten back a year later in the Battle of Uhud. Jewish tribes of al-Nadir and Qurayazah were raided and crushed by Muhammad in 626 and 627. In the 'War of the Ditch' the Muslims of Medina defeated the attacking Meccans. Eventually in the treaty of Hudaybiyya, a truce was achieved with the Quraysh who agreed to recognize the rights of Muhammad to proselytize without hindrance. In 629, after defeating the Jews of Khaybar, Muhammad wrote letters and sent messengers to the rulers of Persia, Yemen and Ethiopia as well as Emperor Heraclius of Rome, inviting them to accept Islam. In the year 630 the Quraysh broke the truce and in the ensuing battle, Mecca fell to Muhammad, by force. The entire population was converted to Islam and the Kabbah was established as its religious center. A year later the Arab tribes accepted Islam. On June 8, 632, Muhammad died in Medina. He was sixty-three years old.

Koran, the Source of Islamic Law

Koran's revelations did not come at one stretch but at brief intervals (revelations spoken in Medina came later than those of Mecca) and these were at first committed to memory. The caliphate of Umar, (the second caliph - literally the deputy of the Prophet), and later caliphate of Uthman (644-656), his successor, collected all the verses and the first authorized version of Koran was established. Though this version is considered as the authentic version today, there are other variant versions that are also accepted and recognized by the Muslims. The original version was in Kufic script and contained no vowels or distinguishing, diacritical points that has led to some interpretive differences in the subsequent versions.

Koran teaches God's mercy and forgiveness to all. It preaches oneness of God, who is almighty and all-knowing as well as compassionate towards His creatures. Justice and fairness, kindness to orphans and widows, and charity to the poor are all extolled. God is also stern in retribution. Unbelievers will be dealt with no mercy and hell is a place they will rest in afterlife. The true believers who follow the teachings of Koran will enter a garden watered by running streams, with abundant fruit trees - a true paradise. The most important duties of Muslims are faith in God and His apostle (shehada), prayer (salat), almsgiving or tax levy (zakat), fasting (siyam), and if possible pilgrimage to the sacred House in Mecca (hajj), built by Abraham for the worship of One God. These are the five pillars of Muslim doctrine. Islam literally means 'submission' and a Muslim is one who 'submits'. The unequivocal monotheism of Islam served to unite all Muslims into a brotherhood (umma), which would later unify all the Muslims worldwide into a formidable social and military force.

Holy war (jihad) was waged vigorously against people who refused peacefully to submit to the will of God. Since the Jews and the Christians (dhimmis) derived their scripture based on 'partial revelations' of lesser prophets, they were allowed to practice their religion provided they paid a tax (jizya) of six percent of their wealth. Pagans and infidels (kafirs) on the other hand, had no alternatives but to submit to Islam lest they spend their afterlife suffering the fury of Hell for eternity.

The doctrine, law and the fundamental thinking of Islam are based on the Koran, complemented by three other sources, namely the Sunnah (traditions i.e. Hadith), Jima (consensus) and Ijtihad (reasoning by analysis). Koran consists of 114 surahs or chapters of varying lengths. Each chapter arranged in no particular order contains many verses or ayat. There are 6000 ayats in the Koran. Koran (literal meaning - recitation or reading) is the only authentic source of Islamic teachings, as dictated by the Prophet himself. The laws according to Koran and the Hadith were codified in the orthodox Shari at (literally Highways). The laws were interpreted by learned scholars (ulama) and justice were enforced and dispensed by the judges (quazis) accordingly, who generally were the ultimate authorities.

Sunnah was used by the pre-Islamic Arabs to denote the tribal laws. The Muslims came to call it as the words of deeds of Muhammad or Hadith. Hadith is a collection of six books, a collection gathered over two centuries after the death of the Prophet. Its words contain sayings attributed to the Prophet. Much of the Islamic teachings today are based on the Hadith and it is taught in all the Islamic schools, called madrassas. It also forms the basis of hair-splitting arguments about right and wrong by the Muslims.

Jima is the text of consensus to standardize the regional differences of legal theory and practices. It has helped to form a rigid principal in thinking. Once consensus was reached it is prohibited to revisit it and rethink it. The accepted interpretation of the Koran and the contents of Sunnah (Hadith) rest on the finality of the jima. Jima gives the rigidity to the interpretations that has little chance to be changed over the course of time.

(analogy) and ijtihad or 'endeavor or effort' were required to find solutions for new problems early in the development of Islam. Later the rigid rules of jima made ijtihad essentially ineffective, though some of the more modern thinkers have revived the role of Ijtihad because of the modern influences to Islam.

Early History and Divisions of Islam

Following Muhammad's death the leaders in Mecca and Medina hastily chose Muhammad s father-in-law, Abu Bakr as the next caliph (Khakifa-Arabic) without consulting the other members of the family of Muhammad. This led to unease because Muhammad was perceived to have chosen his son-in-law and cousin, Ali as his successor. Muhammad had established a system of caliphate to succeed him for the leadership and guidance of the Muslim people in order to perpetuate the religion. When Abu Bakr died two years later Umar succeeded him as the second caliph. Uthman, who belonged to the Umayya family, then succeeded him. The members of this family were vehemently opposed to the Prophet when he was alive and this led to friction between him and Ali. Ali's followers were discontented with the choice of Uthman as the religious leader of Islam. The choice of the caliphate was not hereditary and was more a democratic process.

In 656 Uthman was assassinated, though it is controversial as to who was responsible the murder. Ali proclaimed himself the fourth caliph of Mecca in the year 656. The Umayyads, however, never accepted Ali as the caliph and chose Mu awiyya as their caliph. After fierce fighting Ali had to flee Medina and settle in Kufi in Iraq. Dissension broke in his own ranks because he was perceived as making peace with the Umayyads, by some of the zealots amongst his supporters. Ali was perceived to as have lost in arbitration (Tahkim) with Mu awiyya. A group called Kharjites felt that Ali was straying away from the principles of Islam when he was seen to be compromising with the enemy. Ali had to defeat this group at the same time he was fighting the Umayyads. However, later in the year 661, the Kharjites assassinated Ali as an act of revenge. The Kharjites had influential followers in Islam only in the early history of the religion, though there are still remnants of them in North Africa and Southern Arabia.

Sunni, Shia and other Subsets

The followers of Ali are the Shia Muslims and those of caliphate are the Sunni Muslims. The Shia do not accept the caliphate and are governed by Imams who are descendents of Prophet Muhammad. The Shia also accept the sayings of Ali and his wife Fatima (the Prophet's daughter) as equally authoritative as the Sunnah.

Ali's supporters in Iraq did not accept the authority of the Umayyad caliphs and chose their own spiritual leaders called Imams. The position of Imam was also hereditary for ten generations. The eleventh Imam died without an heir and this led to disarray in the Shiaite sect. It divided into several sects, the important one being the Qatiyya sect (those who are certain). They believed that the eleventh Imam indeed had a son. Another sect (called 'Twelvers') believed that this twelfth Imam is still in hiding. This sect called the Imami Shia is the most prominent sect today. Until such time that the twelfth Imam makes his appearance again, the caretaker is a religious scholar called the Ayatollah. Another distinction between Sunnis and Shiaites is that the former believe in the absolute authority of the Koran without any further revelations while the latter believe that the coming Imam will add further to the revelation of Koran. A group of Shiaites believed that there were no Imams after the seventh Imam and these are called the Ismailis or 'Seveners.' Another splinter group that broke away from the mainstream Ismailis is the followers of Aga Khan. Also referred to as Nizari Ismailis, they believed the brother of the seventh Imam as the legitimate Imam and have followed an unbroken string of Imams until the current day; current Aga Khan is believed to be the 49th in the line of succession.

In the following years, there were other divisions and sub-divisions of Islam. The esoteric Druze were strictly monogamous and met on Thursdays instead of Fridays. They also believed that Ali was an incarnate of Allah. Hashshashins (eaters or smokers of Hashish or Assassins?) broke away from Ismailis early in the 11th century and were important in the fight against the Crusaders and the Christians. Today they still exist in Bombay, India, Syria and Iran. They are called Khojas or Mawals today.

Mu'awiyya was a brilliant ruler, who solidified his rule in Iraq and Iran. Peace was at hand for twenty long years during his rule, which was quite a feat in those days of discontent and dissension. He established his firm hold in the region and moved his capital to Damascus in Syria from Medina. He was a good administrator and borrowed many ideas from the Byzantine financial systems. This was gradually integrated into Islam. He also helped in establishing a monarchy and authority, which eventually helped in spreading the glory of Islam far and wide, especially in the form of art, architecture, music and writing.

The Sunni follow any one of four major schools of jurisprudence founded by imams ibn Hanbal, abu Hanifa, Malek, and el-Shafei, scholars of the ninth to eleventh centuries. These schools, referred to respectively as the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafei, are followed by different Muslim states either entirely or in part. Egypt is traditionally Maliki. Saudi Arabia is traditionally Hanbali, although the country follows more closely the teachings of imam Muhammad Abdal-Wahab, a Hanbali reformer of the early 1800's. Even though there are differences in interpretation of the Sharia among these authorities, they are all recognized as valid.

Following Mu'awiyya's death in 680, his son Yazid was chosen as the caliph. Soon fighting broke between him and Husayn, the son of Ali. In the year 680, Yazid lured Husayn to Karbala (in present day Iraq) and killed along with some of his followers. Yazid was then in the middle of a siege of Mecca when he suddenly died. His adolescent son Mu'awiyya II, who was chosen as the leader was ineffective and soon died. The day of Husayn's martyrdom is celebrated today by people mourning his death by self-flagellation and public weeping. It was the death of Husayn that spurred the Shi'a movement.

The Islamic world was now in disarray with three competing groups namely Shiaites, Sunni and Kharjites vying for dominance. Several tribes especially in Syria became strong. The Umayyad rule lasted until the year 750 and they also helped expansion of Islam to Europe, North Africa and Egypt. Al-Wahid (705-715) built the mosque in Damascus and other buildings, and the legacy of great builders of Islam was born. He also made the Arabic language the only official language of Islam, which helped cement the primacy of Arabic language in the Muslim world forever. The Umayyad dynasty was eventually overthrown by the rulers of the Abassid dynasty, descendents of al-Abbas, a paternal uncle of Muhammad, who was an early supporters of the Prophet.

The Abassid take over marked the end of Arab dominance and began a new era when the 'foreigners' namely the non-Arabs (or the Mawalis) and Shiaites became prominent. The center of the empire was moved to Baghdad instead of Damascus, which became the seat of Islamic power. The Umayyad however consolidated their power in Spain and remained in control there for several centuries. The Abassids had defeated the Umayyads with the help of the Shiaites but later the two groups quarreled and fell out of each otheras favor. Gradually the Abassid dynasty also lost power and by the 9th century Islamic power had moved out of Arabia and was situated more in Persia. The Umayyads still maintained power in Spain until 929 and established a rival caliphate there. This decentralization helped it to spread into Asia and Eastern Europe as well as Africa more rapidly.


Apart from the Kharjites and Qatiyya sects, several branches of Muslims developed in the different regions. Another sect of Muslims became more spiritual and mystical in their practices, primarily as a legacy of Persian influence upon Islamic orthodoxy. Known as Sufi (literal meaning - wool, as in ascetics who wore woolen garments), they opted solitude and abnegation, renouncing physical comforts. They preferred silent prayers and meditation in an attempt to transcend worldly life and unite with Allah in a celestial tranquil union. Sufism has been present in some form or the other since the early 7th century and has as its doctrine the Wahdat al-Wujud (oneness of being). It devised a concept of stages of piety that led to sainthood and introduced a philosophical nuance to the religion of Islam.

Nevertheless, Sufism was accepted and provided mysticism to Islam and deviated from the communal worship and governance. The Sufi movement is a mystical strain in Islam, which reflects the need of individuals to transcend formal religious practices in order to attain higher levels of spiritual fulfillment. The Sufis are represented in all schools of thought in Islam and found in all Muslim communities. Because of its mystical, spiritual character, Sufism appeals more to individuals and small groups. It does not constitute either a sect or a school of thought, but is rather a spiritual or transcendental practice, which persists despite criticism from orthodox theologians. Sufis believe they follow the Prophet's mysticism, particularly during the Meccan period of the revelations. Thus, in their practices there is much meditation and solitary or group recitation of prayers and incantations of their own religious formulas. They seek a life of ascetic pietism, shunning worldly pleasures and seeking the inward purity of a relationship with God through love, patience, forgiveness, and other higher spiritual qualities.

The message of divine love of Sufism is the Islam's answer to Bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism and Krishna of Hinduism. It was also the reason the Buddhists and Hindus were able to accept this mystic form of Islam rather than the rigid tenets of the orthodox Islam, which was intolerant of the idol worshipping religions, branding them as infidels and pagans. After the slaughter of Buddhists in India, especially in Bengal by year 1202 by iconoclastic Muslim invaders, Sufism provided an alternative to the Buddhists as well as deposed Hindus, and many converted to this form of practice of Islam. Three orders of Sufism developed in India, by the thirteenth century, namely Chishti, Suhrawardi and Firdawsi. According to the famous Islamic Scholar, Ahmad Nizami, Muslim saints, who were the followers of Chishti, Sohadafari, Qalemiya, Hafeziya, Shahbaziya, Mustaqiya, Qadousiya and Nizamiya and other orders arrived in India after Mohamad Ibn Qasim's invasion of Sindh, in the beginning of the 8th century.

Sufi saints have played a prominent role in the history of Islamic India. Salim Chishti was a saint who was followed by Akbar and hailed from a small village near Agra. Akbar, who was prone to periods of depression and despondency, was greatly helped by the Sufi saint. He predicted the emperor will not be heirless and soon after a son was born, who was named Salim in honor of the saint. Akbar even built a city in the village where the saint resided and moved his capital temporarily there. However, as we know from history he had to abandon Fatepur Sikri later, when water became so scarce that it could not support the burgeoning populace.

Another Sufi saint in whose honor a monument was built was Khwaja Qutb-ud-din Bhaktiar Kaki Ushi. Qutb Minar and the Qutb Mosque were built in honor of him by his namesake sultan of Delhi in the early 13th century, namely Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak of the Slave dynasty, the very first Muslim dynasty to rule India. This Sufi saint had a disciple called Baba Sheikh Farid or Hazrat Farid Shakkarganj, who was a very popular saint. He was born near Multan district (current day Pakistan). Farid was one of the founding fathers of the famous Chishtia Sufi Order along with saint Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti (Khwaja Gharib-Nawaz), who has a well-known shrine in Ajmer, Rajasthan. Farid's writings and hymns were incorporated by Guru Nanak (134 of them) into his teachings and passed on as oral tradition. They were included in the Adi Granth, the Sikh Holy Scripture, as compiled by Guru Arjun, in early 17th century. Later Sufi saints of India helped in integrating Hinduism and Islam, in an acceptable manner to both religions. Hindus even maintain and administer some of the Sufi shrines.

Sufi influence on the development of Islam is more significant than is usually recognized. Their ascetic piety and rigidly ethical conception of Islamic society have influenced generations of Muslims. They have also had from time to time strong political influence. What characterizes Sufis the most is their emphasis on introspection and looking inwards or belief that the Sharia only regulates external conduct, whereas inward feelings are matter strictly between each person and the Creator. Because of their emphasis on the love of God, they have developed the doctrine of Tawakul (reliance on God), which is central to the relationship between Man and God. Sufism also has had a significant impact on the practical aspects of administering a state.


Great progress was made in the field of poetry, writing, medicine and culture in the coming centuries. Great monuments were built all over the Muslim world, which grew rapidly. Dynasties like the Seljuk of Turkey, Fatimid and Malmuk dynasties of Egypt and the Ottoman Turkish Empires flourished. The Mughals of India were mighty rulers, for three centuries, especially in their golden days for six generations, from Babur to Aurangazeb. They brought Islamic culture, and architecture to India in full earnest. The Arabian Nights, a compilation of stories made its appearance around 780 C.E during the Abassid dynasty. Caliph Harun al Rahid, who ruled until the year 809, figured prominently in the Arabian Nights. The greatest Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, wrote his poetry, Rubaiyat.

Arguably the greatest Islamic philosopher Al-Farabi (c 950 C.E.) taught that an enlightened individual could perfect his life through philosophy without being corrupted by the common beliefs of the people. Jami was the author of Laila and Majnu, the immortal love story, similar to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Rhazes (c 865 C.E.), the greatest of physician of the medieval times, described the difference between measles and small pox. Avicenna (c1037 C.E.) who was both a philosopher and a physician discovered that disease can spread from contaminated water and that tuberculosis was contagious. Saint Kabir is perhaps the most quoted Hindi poet in India, whose life spanned more than the entire 15th century (1398-1514), immortalized his teachings in couplets called Dohas. There are more than 400 Dohas included in the Granth Sahib, the Holy Scripture of Sikh faith. Raised by a Muslim weaver family, Kabir extracted the best essence of Islam and Hinduism (though he was critical of all sects), and incorporated them in his music. He is equally venerated by Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus.

The list of contributions of Muslims to art and architecture, and science, mathematics and medicine mentioned here is woefully incomplete. I invite readers to add to the list of contributions of Islam to the world of art, architecture and science as addendum to this article.


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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