To understand the origins of Islam, it is worth going all the way back to Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) and his two sons, Ishmael (Ismail) and Isaac (Ishaq).
Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith, and bowed his will to God’s (Which is Islam). (sura 3:67)
Both sons were prophets. Ishmael was regarded as the prophet to the Arabs. Isaac was the prophet to the Jews. When Isaac’s mother insisted that Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, were sent away, they went into Arabia. There Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt the Ka’aba (originally built by Adam) as a house of God. This established monotheism in the region. However, by the time of Muhammad, the beliefs of Abraham had been forgotten. The Ka’aba contained over 360 statues and idols.
The city of Makkah was well known before the life of Muhammad for two reasons. Firstly it was an important centre of trade had excellent connections to the rest of the region. This meant that Makkah was a successful and well-off city. Secondly, because of the Ka’aba, it was an important site of pilgrimage for the many worshippers of the many gods. These visitors to the city also contributed to this wealth.
Muhammad was born in 570 into a well off family, but his childhood was not easy. Firstly his father and then his mother died when he was a young child.
However, he grew up to be well regarded in Makkah. He married a wealthy widow named Khadijah in 595. Perhaps because of the many visitors to Makkah, Muhammad became more interested in religion and was particularly impressed by some of the monotheists he met, including Jews and Christians. He also became troubled at the corruption and greed he found in polytheistic Makkah.
He spent more and more time in prayer and meditation in a cave on Mount Hira. It was during the month of Ramadan 610 that he first received a message from God in a vision of the angel Gabriel (Jibril). More messages were revealed to Muhammad with the key themes that there was only one God (tawhid) and that the people needed to return to the previous religion of the prophets (risalah).
At first, Muhammad only had a few followers, mostly from his family. They prostrated as they prayed towards Jerusalem as a sign of submission to al-Lah (the God).
In 613, Muhammad received God’s command to spread the message to others:
Then declare what you are commanded and turn away from the polytheists. (sura 15:94)
So Muhammad began to share the message of God and the new community began to grow. However, many of the powerful leaders in Makkah were worried. Muhammad’s influence over the young people threatened their power in the city. The idea of one God also threatened the wealth that came from the pilgrims who came to worship the many idols.
So these leaders began a campaign of persecution against the Muslims. Some were killed and there were several attempts to assassinate Muhammad.
In this difficult period, Muhammad was taken on a miraculous night journey by angels from Makkah to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. From here he ascended to heaven where God gave him instructions on how Muslims should pray. The Dome of the Rock shrine is built over the place where this ascension took place. It is also believed to be the place of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son. The al-Aqsa mosque is close by, known as ‘the furthest mosque’ in the Qur’an. Both of these buildings are built on what used to be the Jewish temple.
Around the same time, leaders of a city called Yathrib, around 200 miles to the north of Makkah heard Muhammad and were impressed by him. Yathrib contained 3 Arab and 2 Jewish tribes and they needed a leader to help settle their disputes. They invited Muhammad to lead the community.
So Muhammad left Makkah in a journey known as the Hijra in 622. The city in which he made his new home became known as Medina Nabi (city of the Prophet) or Medina for short.
In Medina, Muhammad was able to set up a Muslim state. The Islamic calendar is dated from this event and uses the letters AH to mean ‘after Hijra’. Muhammad was welcomed in Medina and initially got on very well with the Jews. He learned much from them about the scriptures and especially about Abraham. However, over time disputes emerged. Though the Muslims and the Jews were in agreement about the one God, other parts of their beliefs did not match. In 624, realising that these differences could not be resolved, Muhammad commanded that the Muslims pray towards Makkah instead of Jerusalem. In doing this he showed that his community was not a part of Judaism or Christianity. Muhammad showed that this new group looked all the way back to Abraham.
They say, “Be Jews or Christians [so] you will be guided.” Say, “Rather, [we follow] the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth, and he was not of the polytheists.” (sura 2:135)
During his time in Medina, Muhammad went about establishing a Muslim community (the ummah)
The revelations he received from God here were quite different from those he received in Makkah. Now, they were more focussed on building a community. They contained practical teachings about matters such as the uses of money and marriage.
There was, however, still a threat from Makkah. As Medina became more powerful and prosperous, the leaders of Makkah became more worried. Between 624 and 630 there were several wars between the two cities as the Makkan leaders tried to overthrow Muhammad. However, none of these attacks were successful and Muhammad was able to conquer Makkah with ease and little loss of life in 630.
In 632, Muhammad made his final pilgrimage that became the template for the hajj. During this he spoke to 120,000 Muslims on the Plain of Arafat. Following this he returned to Medina where he caught a fever and died. He was buried where he died and this tomb remains a site of pilgrimage for Muslims to this day.