A History of Islam: The Second Largest Religion in Today’s World Began With a Divine Revelation
The word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission or surrender to the will of God’. Islam is one of the major world religions, and with over 1 billion adherents, is the second largest religion in the world today. The history of Islam goes all the way back to the 7th century, when it was revealed through divine revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca, in what is today Saudi Arabia. By the time of the Prophet’s death, Islam had gained control over the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. The mission of spreading the religion was carried on by the Prophet’s successors, who brought Islam to the four corners of the world.
Medieval Persian manuscript depicting Muhammad leading Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer. (Public Domain)
The Prophet Muhammad and Early History of Islam
According to Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad received the first verse of the Qur’an from Allah via the angel Jibril (Arabic for Gabriel) in a cave in 610 AD. Muhammad began to preach in his hometown of Mecca and soon gained a following. By 615, a community of believers had grown around the Prophet, and in 622, seeing Muhammad as a threat, the Quraysh, who were in control of Mecca, forced him and his followers out of the city. Muhammad embarked on the hijrah (journey) to Medina, where he was welcomed by the local Muslims.
1307 Depiction of Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. (Public Domain)
At Medina, the Prophet was able to establish an Islamic government and he became a religious, political, and military leader. In 630, Medina had grown strong enough for Muhammad to march an army against Mecca. The city was conquered with minimum bloodshed. Two years later, the Prophet died, by which time the whole of the Arabian Peninsula had come under the control of Islam.
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The Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim Army at the Battle of Uhud, from the Siyer-i Nebi, 1595. (Public Domain)
The Rashidun Caliphate Expand the Islamic State
The Prophet Muhammad was succeeded by four caliphs, known collectively as the Rashidun (meaning ‘rightly guided) Caliphate. The four caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib, led the Islamic state from the death of Muhammad to 661. Although the Rashidun Caliphate lasted merely 29 years, it made a huge expansion to the territory ruled by Islam. It was during this period that the Levant, Egypt, large parts of North Africa, and Persia were conquered by the Muslims.
Alī bin Abī Ṭālib by Hakob Hovnatanyan (c. 19th century). (Public Domain)
Despite the military successes of the Muslim armies, the Islamic state was not without internal conflict. The question of succession had already risen immediately following the death of Muhammad, and this issue would split the Muslims into several factions. According to the Shiites, for instance, the first three Rashidun caliphs were not legitimate, and only Ali was the rightful successor of the Prophet. On the other hand, Ali came into conflict with many of his brethren, especially with those who allegedly wanted to avenge the assassination of Uthman.
Civil War Breaks Out
As a consequence, the First Fitna, a civil war in the Rashidun Caliphate, broke out in 656. The civil war lasted until Ali’s death at the hands of the Kharijites in 661. Ali was succeeded by his son, Hasan ibn Ali, who, in order to prevent further bloodshed, concluded a peace treaty with Muawiyah, the governor of Syria, and a major opponent of Ali in the First Fitna. Although Hasan agreed to hand over political power to Muawiyah, one of the conditions placed on the latter was that a dynasty would not be established after his death.
Combat between the forces of Ali and Muawiyah I during the Battle of Siffin, from the Tarikhnama. (Public Domain)
Muawiyah, however, reneged on his promise and the Umayyad Caliphate, which had a dynastic and hereditary succession, was established. Under the Umayyad caliphs, Islam continued to spread, and western North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, the northwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent, as well as parts of Central Asia were brought under Islamic rule. The Umayyad Caliphate lasted until 750, when it was overthrown in a rebellion / revolution by the Abbasids, who in turn established the next caliphate. The surviving male members of the Umayyad dynasty were hunted down and killed, though some succeeded in escaping to the Iberian Peninsula, where they established a new regime.
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The Slow Demise of Caliphates
The Abbasid Caliphate lasted until 1517, though for the last few centuries of its existence, its caliphs did not wield any real power. The Abbasid Golden Age lasted from the 8th to the 9th centuries, during which time the Abbasid caliphs resided in Baghdad. By the end of the 9th century, however, the caliphate began to decline, and the Abbasid caliph al-Mustakfi was overthrown by the Buyids in 945. The Abbasids only returned to power in 1194, though the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 effectively brought the Abbasid Caliphate to an end.
Conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols 1258. (Public Domain)
Nevertheless, some members of the Abbasid Dynasty survived, and one of them, Al-Mustansir, found his way to Cairo, which was under the rule of the Mamluks. Al-Mustansir was proclaimed the new Abbasid caliph, though he was little more than a religious figurehead. The Abbasid Caliphate of Cairo lasted until 1517, when the title of Caliph was claimed by the Ottomans who had conquered Egypt. This title was used by the Ottoman sultans until 1924, when the caliphate was abolished following the creation of the Republic of Turkey.
Top image: 9th century painting of Jean Baptist Huysmans showing an Islamic Egyptian family during an evening prayer. Source: Cool Art/CC BY NC SA 2.0
By Wu Mingren
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