The history of Islam centers around one person, Muhammad (also spelled Muhammed or Mohammed). He was born around 570 A.D. and was raised by his extended family after the death of his parents. As he grew, he became dissatisfied with polytheism and came to believe in one God, Allah. He began to have religious visions around age 40. During these visions, Muhammad would receive “messages” or “revelations” from Allah. He would memorize them and teach them to his followers. These visions are now recorded in the Qur’an (orKoran). Muhammad continued to receive these visions and messages until his death in 632 A.D.
The Expansion of Islam
Muhammad’s new faith was not widely accepted in his hometown of Mecca. Therefore, he and his followers moved to Medina which means “City of the Prophet”. This movement is known as the Hijirat or “the flight”. It marks the turning point in Islam and serves as the beginning date on Islamic calendars.
At first, Muhammad was sympathetic to both Christians and Jews, but after their rejection of his teaching, he turned from Jerusalem as the center of worship for Islam to Mecca. He realized he must return to Mecca, and he did, conquering the city. Islam quickly spread throughout the area.
When Muhammad died, he left no document appointing a successor. Some people thought that one of the original converts who had taught with Muhammad, some wanted a member of a powerful political family in the area, and others felt that ‘Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad had been divinely designated as successor. An early believer, Abu Bakr was appointed, but died within two years.
Eventually, a power struggle developed as different groups of Muslims believed their method of establishing a successor were the best. The largest argument was over whether the successor should be elected or chosen through heredity. This controversy produced two major sects of Islam known as the Sunnis (followers of the prophet’s way) and the Shi’a. The Sunnis are the majority in Islam today.
The Shi’a are the group of Muslims who believe that the successorship should remain within Muhammad’s family, and that leaders are spiritually chosen, not politically chosen. They carry with them the pain of Muhammad’s son-in-law, ‘Ali, who was murdered by Mu’awiya in order to obtain power. Today, the Shi’a dominate Iran.
Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam. Strict Sufis believe that orthodox Islam is too mechanical and impersonal. This group of Islamic mystics seek for direct personal experience of the Divine. Some Muslims think of Sufism is outside the religion of Islam; others see it as simply the esoteric side of the religion.
Nationalism in the Arab world since the rise of Israel as a political power has kept Islam strong. It is a rapidly spreading religion because of its cultural and political appeal and its universal message of peace, temperance and the brotherhood of man.
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