The Birth of the Islamic Empire
The Creation of Islam
Muhammad was born around 570 in Mecca, near the Red Sea coast in present- day Saudi Arabia. Beginning in 610, he underwent a series of visionary experiences in which Allah revealed a new moral code to him, urging the unity of all believers under a common code of law and the worship of Allah as the one God. Muhammad made some converts in Mecca, but his monotheistic message was not popular there and he was forced to flee south to Medina in 622 in an event Muslims refer to as the hijra (hegira). Once in Medina, Muhammad had much greater success as a prophet; one possible reason for this is that Medina was home to a large Jewish population who found nothing threatening or unfamiliar in his preaching of monotheism and his emphasis on charity. (Relations between the two groups did not remain cordial; as more and more of Medina fell under the sway of Islam, the Jews were shut out of the city.)
The Teachings of Islam
The Arabic word Islam means “surrender or submission to God.” The holy book of Islam is called the Quran (Koran). Considered the word of Allah as revealed to Muhammad, the verses of the Quran were collected and written down in Arabic in their final form soon after his death, around 650. The Quran is not only holy scripture; it also forms the basis of the Arab legal system. Muslims also venerate the Sunna, their name for the actual words and teachings of Muhammad.
Islam has five basic requirements of its followers. Known as the Five Pil- lars of Islam, these are faith, prayer, alms, fasting, and pilgrimage. Faith means exclusive worship of Allah, the one God, and acknowledgment of his prophet Muhammad. Muslims must face in the direction of Mecca and speak five ritual prayers each day in addition to praying at a mosque every Friday afternoon. Muslims are expected to give generously to charity, to fast between sunrise and sunset throughout the month of Ramadan, and to take part at least once in their lives in the annual mass pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims also take very seriously the concept of jihad , which means “struggle”; jihad requires Muslims to work for the good of Islam in all ways, not only or even primarily by taking up arms. (Non-Muslims, particularly Westerners, commonly mistranslate jihad as “holy war.”)
Islam has its roots in Judaism and Christianity. All three religions are mono- theistic and worship the same God; Allah is simply the Arabic name for him. Muslims consider Jesus a major biblical prophet, but they do not accept that he was literally the son of God. They believe that Muhammad was the last and greatest of the prophets and that Islam is the true religion prophesied throughout the Bible. Like Christianity and unlike Judaism, Islam is a missionary religion with the goal of converting all peoples to its beliefs. This missionary aspect of the faith is part of what drove the expansionist policies of the early caliphs.
The Islamic Empire
Muhammad was not only a prophet but also an extraordinary political leader. In 630, the Muslims conquered Mecca under his leadership, and by 632, Muhammad had united the entire Arabian peninsula as a unified state for the first time in history.
Muhammad named no successor, which eventually led to strife among his followers. The first four caliphs to follow Muhammad are known to Sunni Muslims as the “righteous caliphs”; all four were related to Muhammad by marriage, blood, or both. After these four, however, internal conflict over the leadership led to civil war and the beginnings of what would become a permanent schism between two Islamic denominations—the majority Sunnis and the minority, fundamentalist Shiites.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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