A History of the Origins and Spread of Islam

Ibn al-Bawwab Quran Manuscript is a fully-surviving Quran in cursive style (Nakshi script). It is currently placed in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. This Manuscript was written by an Arab Calligrapher, Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn-Hilal, commonly known as Ibn al-Bawwab in Baghdad.

Exploring how the Islamic faith quickly spread throughout Arabia and beyond.


Muhammad was born around 570 C.E. He taught the faith called Islam, which became one of the major religions of the world.

Muhammad’s birthplace, Makkah (Mecca), was an ancient place of worship. According to tradition, many centuries before Muhammad was born, God tested the prophet Abraham’s faith by ordering him to leave Hagar and their infant son Ishmael in a desolate valley. As Hagar desperately searched for water, a miracle occurred. A spring bubbled up at her son’s feet. This spring became known as Zamzam. According to the Qur’an (koor-AHN), Abraham built a house of worship at the site, called the Ka’bah. Over time, people settled near it.

By the time of Muhammad’s birth, this settlement, Makkah, was a prosperous city at the crossroads of great trade routes. Many people came to worship at the Ka’bah. But instead of honoring the God of Abraham’s faith, Judaism, and Christianity, the worshippers at the Ka’bah honored the many traditional gods whose shrines were there.

According to Islamic teachings, Muhammad was living in Makkah when he experienced his own call to faith. Just as Abraham did, Muhammad proclaimed belief in a single God. At first, the faith he taught, Islam, met with resistance in Makkah. But Muhammad and his followers, called Muslims, eventually gained a great number of followers. Makkah became Islam’s most sacred city, and the Ka’bah became a center of Islamic worship.

Arabia in the 6th Century

Panorama of Mecca, 1845, from the Khalili Collections / Khalili Foundation, Wikimedia Commons

Islam has its roots in Arabia, where Muhammad was born. To understand Islam’s beginnings, we first need to look at the time period in which Muhammad grew up.

The town of Makkah (Mecca), Muhammad’s birthplace, was located in a dry, rocky valley in western Arabia. Makkah did not have agriculture. Instead, it gained wealth as a center of trade. Merchants traveling along caravan routes stopped at the city’s market and inns. They bought spices, sheepskins, meat, dates, and other wares from townspeople and nomads.

By the time that Muhammad was born, Makkah was a prosperous city. Merchant families brought goods into Makkah from faraway places. Merchants grew wealthy through trade with Yemen (southern Arabia), Syria, and kingdoms in Africa. Over time, a handful of families, or clans, had come to rule the city. These families would not share their fortune with the weaker, poorer clans who lived there.

Makkah was also a religious center. According to the Qur’an, Abraham had built the cube-shaped shrine, the Ka’bah, centuries before, to honor God. In Muhammad’s day, according to Islamic teaching, most Arabs followed polytheism, and the Ka’bah housed hundreds of statues of different gods. Pilgrims from all over Arabia came to worship at Makkah.

Many Arabs lived a nomadic life in the desert environment. There was no central government in Arabia. Instead, Arabs pledged loyalty to their clans and to larger tribes. These tribes sometimes fought each other to capture territory, animals, goods, watering places, and even wives. When someone from one tribe was killed during a raid, his family was honor-bound to avenge that death. This led to long periods of fighting among tribes.

Although Arabs on the peninsula were not united as a nation, they shared cultural ties, especially language. Arabic poetry celebrated the history of the Arab people, the beauty of their land, and their way of life. Poets and singers from different tribes competed at gatherings held at the markets and during pilgrimages.

This was the culture into which Muhammad was born. Let’s turn now to the story of how he founded one of the world’s major religions.

From the Migration to Madinah to the End of Muhammad’s Life

Muhammad built the Quba’a Masjid upon his arrival at Medina and is said to have visited the mosque every Saturday afternoon. / Photo by beendiid, Wikimedia Commons

With Abu Talib’s death, Muhammad lost his protector. As Muslims came under more attacks, Muhammad sought a new home. A group of Arab pilgrims from a town called Yathrib visited Makkah and converted to Islam. They asked Muhammad to move to Yathrib to bring peace between feuding tribes. In return, they pledged to protect him.

In 622, Muhammad and his followers left Makkah on a journey known as the hijrah (HEEJ-rah). Yathrib was renamed Madinah (also spelled Medina), short for “City of the Prophet.” The year of the hijrah later became the first year of the Muslim calendar.

Over the next six years in Madinah, Muhammad developed a new Muslim community as more Arabs converted to Islam. Muslims pledged to be loyal and helpful to each other. They emphasized the brotherhood of faith over the ties of family, clan, and tribe. Even though Muhammad and the Qur’an criticized Jews and Christians on some aspects of their beliefs, Muhammad asked his followers to respect Christians and Jews. Like Muslims, these “People of the Book” believe in one God. Muhammad asked that they be treated as lawful members of society.

The Makkans, however, still felt threatened. In 624, fighting broke out between the Muslims and Makkans, and the Muslims won that battle. A few years later, the Makkans staged a siege of Madinah, but failed to capture the city.

The victory against the Makkan troops—and the ideas of charity, generosity, and forgiveness that Muhammad preached—convinced other tribes to convert to Islam. As Islam spread across Arabia, the Makkans agreed to a truce that would allow the Muslims to make their pilgrimage to Makkah. In 630, however, they broke the truce. In response, Muhammad’s army marched on Makkah, and the city’s leaders surrendered without a battle. Muhammad and his followers entered the city and destroyed the idols (statues of gods) at the Ka’bah. They rededicated the shrine solely to one God. Muhammad then forgave his former enemies. The war had ended.

In March 632, Muhammad led his final pilgrimage to Makkah. In the town of his birth, he delivered his Last Sermon. He reminded Muslims to treat each other well and to be faithful to their community. Shortly after his return to Madinah, Muhammad died.

Muhammad’s Early Life

Main tribes and settlements of Arabia in Muhammad’s lifetime / Slackerlawstudent, Wikimedia Commons

Around 570 C.E., a boy named Muhammad was born in Makkah. Muhammad’s early life was ordinary. Few people who were not members of his clan, the Hashim, noted his birth. His father was dead, and the clan was not very wealthy. However, the Hashim had prestige, as they belonged to the leading tribe in Makkah.

Following custom, Muhammad’s mother sent her baby to live with a family of nomads in the desert. There, the young boy learned about traditional Arab values, such as being kind to strangers and helping orphans, widows, and other needy members of society.

When Muhammad was about six, he returned to the city and his mother. They had little time together, because she soon died. Then Muhammad was left in the care of his grandfather, a highly regarded leader of the Hashim clan. Upon the grandfather’s death, Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Talib, a respected merchant, took charge of the orphan. Abu Talib also became head of the clan.

As a boy, Muhammad tended his family’s flocks of sheep and goats. When he was about 12 years old, he accompanied his uncle on a trading journey. They traveled far north to Syria. On this journey, Muhammad gained his first experiences outside Arabia.

As Muhammad grew up, he took on more duties and made more trading journeys. He became a merchant who enjoyed a reputation throughout Makkah for his honesty. People called him al-Amin, which means “the Trustworthy.”

Muhammad was still a young man when he began managing caravans for a widow named Khadijah, who ran a trading business. Muhammad earned her great profits. Impressed with his abilities and honesty, Khadijah proposed marriage. Muhammad accepted her offer, and when he was about 25, they married. Muhammad and Khadijah had several children, but only their daughter Fatima had children of her own. She continued the bloodline of Muhammad.

Muhammad’s Teachings Meet with Rejection

The last ayah from the sura An-Najm: “So prostrate to Allah and worship.” Muhammad’s message of monotheism challenged the traditional order. / Wikimedia Commons

Around 613 C.E., Muhammad began to preach to other Makkans. He taught that people must worship the one God, that all believers in God were equal, and that the rich should share their wealth. He urged Makkans to take care of orphans and the poor and to improve the status of women.

Some members of Muhammad’s clan became Muslims. People from other clans and social classes also joined him. Most Makkans, however, rejected Muhammad’s teachings. Makkah’s leaders did not want to share their wealth. They also feared that if Muhammad grew stronger, he would seize political power. Merchants worried that if people stopped worshipping their gods, they might stop their pilgrimages to Makkah. That would be bad for their businesses. Muhammad’s monotheistic teachings also disturbed Arabs who did not want to give up their gods.

To prevent the spread of the prophet’s message, some Arabs called Muhammad a liar. Some persecuted his followers. Despite this treatment, the Muslims would not give up their faith. Muhammad was also protected by Abu Talib, the head of the Hashim clan. Anyone who harmed a member of the clan would face Abu Talib’s vengeance.

As the number of Muslims grew, the powerful clans of Makkah started a boycott to make Muhammad’s followers give up Islam. For three years, the Hashim clan suffered as Makkans refused to do business with them. Although they were threatened with starvation, the boycott failed to break their will. These difficult years, however, took their toll on Abu Talib and Khadijah. In 619, these trusted family members died.

While these losses were terrible for Muhammad, that year he reported a miraculous event. Muslim tradition tells the story of the Night Journey in which a winged horse took Muhammad to Jerusalem, the city toward which early Muslims had directed their prayers. Jerusalem was already holy to Jews and Christians. There, Muhammad met and prayed with earlier prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Then the horse guided Muhammad through the seven levels of heaven, and Muhammad met God. To this day, Jerusalem is a holy city for Muslims.

The Call to Prophethood

The cave Hira in the mountain Jabal al-Nour where, according to Muslim belief, Muhammad received his first revelation / Photo by Nazli, Wikimedia Commons

For the next 15 years, Muhammad made his living as a merchant. Although he enjoyed success in business, he also cared about spiritual matters. He often spent time at prayer and meditation in the mountains around Makkah. He was concerned about the effects of wealth and the worship of idols on his city.

In about 610 C.E., Muhammad went to meditate in a cave in the mountains. There, according to Islamic teachings, Muhammad received the call to be a prophet, or messenger of Allah. Allah is the Arabic word for God. The same word for God, Allah, is used by Arab Jews and Arab Christians.

Muhammad later described the remarkable events of that night. He told of being visited by the angel Gabriel who brought revelations, or revealed teachings, from God. Gabriel told Muhammad, “You are the messenger of God.”

According to Islamic tradition, at first Muhammad feared that he might be going mad. But Khadijah consoled Muhammad and expressed her faith that God had chosen him as a prophet to spread his words to the people. Khadijah became the first convert to Islam.

Islam is based on monotheism, or the belief in a single God. This God, Muhammad taught, was the same God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Through Gabriel, God told Muhammad to teach others to practice compassion, honesty, and justice.

According to Muslim tradition, the angel Gabriel continued to reveal messages over the next 22 years. At first, Muhammad confided these messages only to family and friends, including his cousin Ali and a close friend, Abu Bakr (ah-BOOH BAHK-uhr). Gradually, a small group of followers developed at Makkah. They were called Muslims, which means “those who surrender to God.” For Muslims, Islam was a way of life and the basis for creating a just society. For example, at the time women had few rights. Muslims granted more rights to women and ensured their equality before God.

Though Muhammad apparently could neither read nor write, he said that the messages from Gabriel were imprinted on his mind and heart. His followers also memorized them. Eventually, some followers wrote down these words and collected them in the Qur’an (also spelled Koran), the holy book of Islam. The poetic beauty of this book helped lend credibility to Muhammad’s claim that it contained the words of God. It also attracted new believers to Islam.

The Four Caliphs

The names of the first four caliphs inscribed at the dome of New Mosque in Eminönü, Istanbul. Construction was begun during the time of Safiye Sultan and completed by Turhan Sultan, the mother of Sultan Mehmed IV. / Wikimedia Commons

By the time of Muhammad’s death, most of central and southern Arabia was under the control of Muslims. Now, his followers had to choose a new leader to preserve the community. They chose Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s friend and father-in-law.

Abu Bakr became the first caliph (KAY-lif), or Muslim ruler. He and the three leaders who followed him came to be known to a large group of Muslims as the “rightly guided” caliphs. These caliphs were said by this group of Muslims to have followed the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad. The Muslim government led by the caliphs was called the caliphate.

When some tribes tried to break away, Abu Bakr used military force to reunite the community. He also completed the unification of Arabia. Then Muslims began to carry the teachings of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula.

After Abu Bakr died in 634, Caliph Umar (ooh-MAR) continued to expand the Muslim empire by conquest. In addition to spreading the faith of Islam, conquest allowed Muslims to gain new lands, resources, and goods.

By 643, the Muslim empire included lands in Iraq, Persia, the eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa. Umar set up governments and tax systems in all these provinces. Among the taxes was one levied on Jews and Christians and other non-Muslims. But Umar also let Jews and Christians practice their beliefs as they liked within their own homes and places of worship. It was unlawful for Muslims to damage Jewish or Christian holy places. In Egypt, treaties allowed for freedom of worship in exchange for the payment of tribute. Later, Muslims completed similar treaties with the Nubians, a people who lived to the south of Egypt.

Upon Umar’s death in 644, Uthman became the third caliph. Uthman was a member of the Umayyad (ooh-MY-ed) clan. He helped unite Muslims when he oversaw the creation of an official edition of the Qur’an. But he also awarded high posts to relatives. People in the provinces complained that he ruled unfairly. Discontent spread, and rebels killed Uthman in 656.

Ali ibn Abi Talib (AH-lee i-ben ah-bee TAH-lib), Muhammad’s cousin and his daughter Fatima’s husband, agreed to become the fourth caliph. Some important Muslims challenged his rule, which led to civil war. Ali sent forces against them, fought two major battles, and won one. But when he ended the other through negotiation, he lost supporters. In 661, one of these former supporters murdered Ali.

The Umayyad Caliphate

The expansion of the Muslim Caliphate until 750, from William R. Shepherd’s Historical Atlas. / Wikimedia Commons

Soon after Ali’s death, Mu’awiyah (mooh-AH-wee-YAH), the leader of the Umayyads, claimed the caliphate. Most Muslims, called the Sunnis (SOOH-neez), came to accept him. But a minority of Muslims, known as the Shi’ah (SHEE-ah), or “party” of Ali, refused to do so. They believed that only people directly descended from Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali should be caliph. The schism between the Sunnis and Shi’ah lasts to this day.

Mu’awiyah put down a revolt by Ali’s supporters. He held on to the caliphate. He also founded the Umayyad dynasty. In 661, the Umayyads moved their capital to Damascus, Syria. From there, the caliphs ruled the huge Muslim empire for close to 100 years.

Slowly, the lands of the Muslim empire took on more elements of Arab culture. Muslims introduced the Arabic language. Along with Islam, acceptance of Arabic helped unite the diverse people of the empire. In addition, Arabs took over as top officials. People bought goods with new Arab coins. While it was not policy to force conversion to Islam, some non-Muslims began to embrace the new faith for a variety of reasons. These included personal belief in the message of Islam and social pressure to join the people of the ruling group.

The Muslim empire continued to expand. The Umayyad caliphs sent armies into central Asia and northwestern India. In 711, Muslim armies began their conquests of present-day Spain. However, at the Battle of Tours in 732, forces under the Frankish king Charles Martel turned the Muslims back in France. This battle marked the farthest extent of Muslim advances into Europe, outside of Spain.

Muslims held on to land in Spain, where Islamic states lasted for almost 800 years. Muslims in Spain built some of the greatest cities of medieval Europe. Their capital city, Cordoba, became a center of learning where Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars shared ideas. Through their work, Muslim culture made important advances in arts, science, technology, and literature.

Exploring Islam


Islam is the world’s second largest religion, after Christianity. One out of five people in the world is Muslim. Most people in the Middle East and North Africa are Muslim, but Muslims live in nearly every country of the world. In fact, the majority of Muslims live in Asia, in nations such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the southeast Asian country of Indonesia. Islam is also the fastest-growing religion in the United States.

Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have much in common. Members of all three faiths are monotheists (they believe in one God). All three religions trace their origins to Abraham. Their scriptures, or sacred writings, all include such figures as Adam, Noah, and Moses. Muslims believe that all three religions worship the same God.

Muslims consider Jews and Christians to be “People of the Book.” Muslims believe that God revealed messages to Moses, Jesus, and others that were compiled into holy books, just as the Qur’an came from God to Muhammad. The Qur’an states that God “earlier revealed the Torah (Judaism) and the Gospel (Christianity) as a source of guidance for people.”

For Muslims, however, the Qur’an contains God’s final revelations to the world. They believe that its messages reveal how God wants his followers to act and worship. In the rest of this chapter, you will learn more about the ideas that have shaped the Muslim faith.

The Five Pillars

The First Pillar: Shahadah

The Testimony of Faith inscribed as calligraphy on top of the Babussalam gate of the Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, Turkey / Photo by Ali Esfandiari, Wikimedia Commons

The first Pillar of Islam is shahadah (shah-HAH-dah), the profession or declaration of faith. To show belief in one God and in Muhammad’s prophethood, a Muslim testifies, “I bear witness that there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

The first part of the shahadah affirms monotheism—“There is no god but God.” Like Christians and Jews, Muslims believe that one all-powerful God—called Allah in Arabic—created the universe. They believe that the truth of that God was revealed to humankind through many prophets. These prophets include Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, who appear in Jewish and Christian scriptures. The Qur’an honors all these prophets.

The second part of the shahadah identifies Muhammad as God’s messenger—“and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” According to this statement, Muhammad announced the message of Islam, which was God’s final word to humankind.

The meaning of shahadah is that people not only believe in God, but also pledge their submission to him. For Muslims, God is the center of life. The shahadah follows Muslims through everyday life, not just prayers. Parents whisper it into their babies’ ears. Students taking a difficult test say the shahadah to help them be successful. To enter into the religion of Islam, a person must pronounce the shahadah aloud in the presence of two Muslim witnesses.

Beyond the shahadah, Muslims also believe in the idea of an unseen world of angels and other beings. According to their faith, God created angels to do his work throughout the universe. Some angels reveal themselves to prophets, as Gabriel did to Muhammad. Other angels observe and record the deeds of each human being. Belief in angels is found in Christianity and Judaism, as well as in Islam.

Muslims also believe that all souls will face a day of judgment. On that day, God will weigh each person’s actions. Those who have lived according to God’s rules will be rewarded and allowed to enter paradise. Those who have disbelieved or done evil will be punished by falling into hell.

The Second Pillar: Salat

Bosniaks praying in an open field, ca. 1906 / Wikimedia Commons

The second Pillar of Islam is salat (SAH-laht), daily ritual prayer. Muhammad said that “prayer is the proof” of Islam. Salat emphasizes religious discipline, spirituality, and closeness to God.

Throughout Muslim communities, people are called to prayer five times a day: at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and after nightfall. A crier, called a muezzin (moo-EHZ-en), chants the call to prayer, sometimes through a loudspeaker, from the tall minaret (tower) of the community’s mosque (MOSK).

Before praying, Muslims must perform ritual washings. All mosques have fresh, flowing water in which worshipers wash their hands, face, arms, and feet. With a sense of being purified, Muslims enter the prayer area. There, they form lines behind a prayer leader called an imam. The worshipers face the qiblah (KIB-lah), the direction of Makkah. A niche in a wall marks the qiblah. People of all classes stand shoulder to shoulder, but men stand in separate rows from women.

The imam begins the prayer cycle by proclaiming “Allahu akbar!” (“God is most great!”). The worshipers then recite verses from the Qur’an and kneel before God.

While praying at a mosque is preferable, Muslims may worship anywhere. In groups or by themselves, they may perform their prayers at home, at work, in airports, in parks, or on sidewalks. A qiblah compass may help them locate the direction of Makkah. Some Muslims carry a prayer rug to have a clean spot on which pray. Some make additional prayers by using prayer beads and reciting words describing God’s many characteristics.

Unlike Christians and Jews, Muslims do not observe a sabbath, or day of rest. On Fridays, however, Muslims gather at a mosque for midday congregational prayer. The worshipers listen to a Qur’an reading and the sermon. After saying prayers together, some return to their regular business. For others, Friday is a special day when people meet with family and friends.

The Third Pillar: Zakat

Silver or gold coinage is one way of granting zakat. / Wikimedia Commons

The third Pillar of Islam is zakat, or charity. Muhammad told wealthy people to share their riches with the less fortunate. This practice remains a basic part of Islam.

The word zakat means “purification.” Muslims believe that wealth becomes pure by giving some of it away, and that sharing wealth helps control greed. Zakat also reminds people of God’s great gifts to them.

According to the teachings of Islam, Muslims must share about one-fortieth (2.5 percent) of their surplus wealth each year with their poorer neighbors. They are encouraged to give even more. Individuals decide the proper amount to pay. Then they either give this sum to a religious official or distribute it themselves.

Zakat helps provide for many needs. In medieval times, zakat often went to constructing public fountains, so everyone had clean water to drink, or to inns so pilgrims and travelers had a place to sleep. If you walk down a busy street in any Muslim town today, you will see the effects of zakat everywhere. Zakat pays for soup kitchens, clothing, and shelter for the poor. It supports the building and running of orphanages and hospitals. Poorer Muslims may receive funds to pay off their debts. Zakat provides aid to stranded travelers.

Zakat also helps other good causes that serve the Muslim community. For instance, zakat can cover the school fees of children whose parents cannot afford to send them to Muslim schools. It can be used to pay teachers.

Zakat is similar to charitable giving in other religions. For instance, Jews and Christians also ask for donations, called tithes (TYTHZ), to support their houses of worship and charitable activities.

The Fourth Pillar: Siyam

Ending the fast at a mosque / Photo by Arisdp, Wikimedia Commons

The fourth Pillar of Islam is siyam (see-YAM), or fasting (going without food). Muslims were not the first people to fast as a way of worshipping God. The Bible praises the act. But the Qur’an instructs Muslims to fast for an entire month during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

According to Islamic teachings, Ramadan was the month when God first revealed his message to Muhammad. Muslims use a lunar calendar (one based on the phases of the moon). A year on this calendar is shorter than a 365-day year. As a result, over time, Ramadan cycles through all the seasons of a standard year.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast from daybreak to the setting of the sun. Pregnant women, travelers, the sick, the elderly, and young children do not have to fast.

During the daylight hours on each day during the month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat any food or drink any liquid, including water. At sunset, Muslims then break their fast, often with dates and other food and beverages—as Muhammad did—and perform the sunset prayer. After a meal shared with family or friends, Muslims attend special prayer services. Each night, a portion of the Qur’an is read aloud. By the end of Ramadan, devout Muslims who attended mosque regularly would have heard the entire holy book.

The holy month of Ramadan encourages generosity, equality, and charity within the Muslim community. Fasting teaches Muslims self-control and makes them realize what it would be like to be poor and hungry. Well-to-do Muslims and mosques often provide food for others. During Ramadan, Muslims also strive to forgive people, give thanks, and avoid gossip, arguments, and bad deeds.

Toward the end of Ramadan, Muslims remember Gabriel’s first visit to Muhammad. It is supposed to have occurred during one of the last ten odd-numbered nights of the month. Worshippers seek out this night because, according to the Qur’an, prayer during this “night of power” is equal to a thousand months of devotion. A celebration called Eid al-Fitr (eed-AL-fitter) takes place when Ramadan ends. People attend prayers. They wear new clothes, decorate their homes, and prepare special foods. They visit friends and family, exchange gifts, and give to the poor.

The Fifth Pillar: Hajj

Pilgrims at the Great Mosque of Mecca on Hajj in 2010 / Photo by Fadi El Binni, Wikimedia Commons

The fifth Pillar of Islam is hajj (HAJZH), the pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah. In the twelfth month of the Islamic year, millions of believers from all over the world come together at Makkah. All adult Muslims who are able to make the journey are expected to perform the hajj at least once during their lifetime. By bringing Muslims from many places and cultures together, the hajj promotes fellowship and equality.

In Makkah, pilgrims follow what Muslims believe are the footsteps of Abraham and Muhammad, and so draw closer to God. For five days, they dress in simple white clothing and perform a series of rituals, moving from one sacred site to another.

Upon arrival, Muslims announce their presence with these words: “Here I am, O God, at thy command!” They go to the Great Mosque, which houses the Ka’bah. Muslims believe that Abraham built the Ka’bah as a shrine to honor God. The pilgrims circle the Ka’bah seven times, which is a ritual mentioned in the Qur’an. Next, they run along a passage between two small hills, as Hagar did when she searched for water for her baby Ishmael. The pilgrims drink from the Zamzam spring, which, appeared miraculously at Ishmael’s feet.

Later, pilgrims leave Makkah to sleep in tents at a place called Mina. In the morning, they move to the Plain of Arafat to pray until sunset, asking God’s forgiveness. Some climb Mount Arafat, where Muhammad preached his Last Sermon. After spending another night camped in the desert, they reject evil by casting stones at pillars representing Satan.

Afterward, pilgrims may celebrate with a four-day feast. In honor of Abraham’s ancient sacrifice, as recounted in religious scriptures, they sacrifice animals, usually sheep or goats, and share the meat with family, friends, and the poor. Then, having completed the hajj, they dress again in their own clothes. Before leaving Makkah, each pilgrim circles the Ka’bah seven more times. Muslims around the world celebrate this “farewell” day as Eid al-Adha (eed-AL-adh-hah).

Islamic Law: Shari’ah

Juristic exchange between Abu Dawood and Ibn Hanbal. One of the oldest literary manuscripts of the Islamic world, dated October 879. / Wikimedia Commons

The body, or collection, of Islamic law is called shari’ah (sha-REE-ah). It is based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Shari’ah covers Muslims’ duties toward God. It guides them in their personal behavior and relationships with others. Shari’ah promotes obedience to the Qur’an and respect for others.

In Madinah’s Muslim community, Muhammad explained the Qur’an and served as a judge. After his death, the caliphs used the Qur’an and the Sunnah to solve problems. As the Muslim empire expanded, leaders faced new situations. Gradually, scholars developed a body of Islamic law. By the 12th century, several schools of Islamic law had emerged.

Islamic law guides Muslim life by placing actions into one of five categories: forbidden, discouraged, allowed, recommended, and obligatory (required). Sometimes the law is quite specific. Muslims, for instance, are forbidden to eat pork, drink alcohol, or gamble. But other matters are mentioned in general terms. For example, the Qur’an tells women “not to display their beauty to strangers.” For this reason, Muslim women usually wear various forms of modest dress. For example, most women cover their arms and legs. Many also wear scarves over their hair. Others cover themselves from head to toe.

Shari’ah also outlines Muslims’ duties toward other people. These duties can be broadly grouped into criminal, commercial, family, and inheritance law.

In a shari’ah court, a qadi (KAH-dee), or judge, hears a case, which includes witnesses and evidence. Then the qadi makes a ruling. Sometimes the qadi consults a mufti, or scholar of law, for an opinion.

Islamic law helped Muslims to live by the rules contained in the Qur’an. By the 19th century, however, many Muslim regions had come under European rule. Western codes of law soon replaced the shari’ah except in matters of family law. Today, most Muslim countries apply only some parts of Islamic law. But shari’ah continues to develop in response to modern ways of life and its challenges.

For the past century, one of the major questions the Muslim world faces is how Islamic law can be made to relate to modern society and government. Turkey has chosen a non-religious legal model. However, Saudi Arabia and Iran have adopted shari’ah as the law of the land, each nation according to its own ideas. Other countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, have strong Islamist parties and strong non-Islamist parties. Most Muslims feel that democracy and freedom do not contradict the teachings and law of Islam. But others feel that the two cannot go hand in hand. The debate continues.


The word jihad literally means “to strive.” Traditionally in Islam, it has meant “physical struggle with spiritual significance.” The Qur’an tells Muslims to fight to protect themselves from those who would harm them or to right a terrible wrong. Early Muslims considered efforts to protect their territory and conquests to extend their empire as forms of jihad. However, the Qur’an forbids Muslims to force others to convert to Islam. So, non-Muslims under Muslim rule were usually allowed to practice their faiths.

Today, some have used jihad to try to make their government more Islamic or to resist perceived aggression from non-Muslims with acts of terrorism. But most Muslims reject such actions. They agree that to deliberately harm civilians, including non-Muslims, is forbidden in Islam.

Although the Qur’an allows war, it sets specific terms for fighting. Muhammad told his followers to honor agreements made with foes. Muslim fighters must not mutilate (remove or destroy) the dead bodies of enemies, nor harm women, children, the elderly, and civilians. Nor should they destroy property, orchards, crops, sacred objects, or houses of worship.

Jihad represents the human struggle to overcome difficulties and do things that would be pleasing to God. Muslims strive to respond positively to personal difficulties as well as to worldly challenges. For instance, they might work to become better people, reform society, or correct injustice.

Jihad has always been an important Islamic concept. One hadith tells about the prophet’s return from a battle. He declared that he and his men had carried out the “lesser jihad,” the external struggle against oppression. The “greater jihad,” he said, was the fight against evil within oneself. Examples of the greater jihad include working hard for a goal, giving up a bad habit, getting an education, or obeying your parents when you may not want to.

Another hadith says that Muslims should fulfill jihad with the heart, tongue, and hand. Muslims use the heart in their struggle to resist evil. The tongue may convince others to take up worthy causes. Hands may perform good works and correct misdeeds.

Originally published by Flores World History, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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