World History 1 170 - 11.1.2 The Religious Tradition of Islam

While the conflict between the Byzantines and the Sasanians raged at the beginning of the seventh century, western Arabia began to take center stage in the creation of a new world religion deeply influenced by the environment, people, and cultures of the late antique Middle East. That religion was Islam, a word meaning “submission [to the one God].” Islam is a monotheistic faith that shares many features with both Judaism and Christianity, while at the same time having many features that were uniquely Arabian and that eventually brought the culture and traditions of the Arabian Peninsula to greater prominence.

Understanding Islam’s origins and early decades can be challenging. Much of what we know about the earliest community of Muslims comes from sources within the community itself that often assume the reader is already a believer, so they omit important details. And because many people were illiterate at this time and not writing their history as it happened, we have less evidence outside religious scripture to help us reconstruct it. While the Arabs placed great emphasis on remembering the events and people of the area’s past, they transmitted this information primarily through a process of memorization and oral recitation, and memory aids, such as poetry, were vital methods as material was passed down through generations. Written histories of the past for future generations were seen as less important than the living “performance” of information through the oral tradition.

While other contemporary societies had become increasingly focused on writing for centuries before the seventh century, the Arab commitment to oral transmission in this period was not unprecedented. The history of early Judaism was similarly transmitted before being committed to writing much later, and historians also face challenges trying to reconstruct the origins of Christianity when little contemporaneous writing survives. Memorializing, memorizing, and transmitting events of the past through epic poetry also has precedent in the Mediterranean world, as seen in the preservation of works such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, attributed to the Greek poet Homer, and the ancient Indian world, as in the case of the Mahabharata.

At the center of the founding of Islam are the city of Mecca, the worship of one God—Allah—and the leadership of the prophets. Even to Muslims today, Allah is not considered to be a god separate from the God of Judaism and Christianity; Allah is simply the Arabic word meaning “the one God.” In fact, Christians who live in the Middle East and speak Arabic today refer to the God of the Christian Bible by using the word “Allah” in their own worship. Belief in the one God and the message of the Islamic prophet Muhammad is the first and most important of the “Five Pillars of Islam,” known as the shahada, the profession of faith. To embrace Islam as their religion, adherents must recognize the creed that “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Muhammad, as recognized by Muslims, was the final prophet in a long list with whom the one God had communicated throughout history, including figures such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muhammad was a divinely chosen man who is not, nor ever has been, worshipped as a God or as a relative of God himself.

Many of the other pillars of Islam also have features in common with other world religions such as ritual fasting, charity, and daily prayer. For Muslims, these acts are specified as daily prayer while facing the direction of the holy mosque in the city of Mecca; almsgiving, the donation of money and goods to the community and people in need; fasting (if able) during Ramadan, the holy month during which the Muslim scripture of the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad; and participating at least once (if able) in the pilgrimage to Mecca—the hajj—to relive important moments in the life of Abraham and his family’s arrival in Arabia and to circle the house of God, the Kaaba, in prayer.

The Past Meets the Present

Hajj: The Islamic Pilgrimage to Mecca

One of the core tenets or “Five Pillars” of Islam is participation in the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. This event, when undertaken during the month of Dhu al-Hijja, is known as the hajj. Each year millions of Muslims travel to the holy city to take part in a process that has been going on for almost fourteen hundred years.

While Mecca was the home of the prophet Muhammad, for Muslims the pilgrimage is about much more. The rituals and events in which they participate are intended to reenact important events in the life of a different prophet, Abraham. The sacred mosque that is the focus of much of the pilgrimage is the holiest site of Islam, built to surround the Kaaba, the black-shrouded cube structure at the center that is believed to be the original home of monotheism (Figure 11.10). Some Muslims believe the Kaaba was constructed by Adam, the first man, and then reconstructed by Abraham.

A picture of a very large gathering area is shown. The open area inside is filled with people, most of them wearing white head coverings. In the center of the people stands a short square building that is covered in black. The perimeter of the area is two tiered with arched openings all around and lights and people showing from within. Lights show along the top and on the back wall three domed projections stand along the top of the wall. Five tall slim towers also rise up from the top wall and are lit up and carved with designs. In the background a dark sky is seen and a city with tall lit up buildings.
Figure 11.10 This photo shows the sacred mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, with a large crowd of pilgrims surrounding the Kaaba, the black-shrouded building in the center. (credit: modification of work “Mekke Suudi Arabistan” by “Konevi”/Pxhere, CC0 1.0)

The five- to six-day hajj recognizes the long history of monotheism in Arabia, acknowledging that Muhammad’s career and message were the correction and perfection of monotheistic worship begun centuries earlier. In addition to Adam, Abraham, and Muhammad, other great figures of history have been adopted and associated with worship at the Kaaba, including Iskandar, more recognizably known as Alexander the Great.

Islamic law recognizes that the hajj is not a trip every Muslim will be able to take. Some may not be healthy enough, and Islamic charitable organizations around the world collect donations to support those who cannot otherwise afford it. Pilgrims may also travel to the holy mosque during other times of the year, which is not considered as having made the hajj but is instead called the umra, the “lesser pilgrimage.”

  • What are the historical implications of the pilgrimage to Mecca being one of the core tenets of Islam?
  • How might the obstacles to making such a pilgrimage today be greater or smaller than in the past?

Muslims have believed throughout their history that Islam and its holy writings are not a new faith created in the seventh century. Instead, the faith that Muhammad brought to the Arabs in the early 600s was merely a corrective to the monotheistic religions that had come before. From the perspective of most Muslims, Islam is the same faith as Judaism and Christianity, with adherents of all three traditions worshipping the same God and recognizing divine intercession in humanity through the leadership of the prophets. Muslims also recognize the holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity as having been given to humans by God but then corrupted over time. Islam thus sees itself as a purer form of these faiths and directly connected to both. The shared history and lineage of the three run through the prophet Abraham, whom all list as an ancestor. Many modern scholars of religion thus refer to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the Abrahamic faiths.

For all the influence that other monotheistic worship in the region may have had on the formation of Islam in the seventh century, however, the faith has many features we might consider uniquely Arab or Arabian. First, of course, is the setting itself. While the land that is modern Israel and Palestine played a central role in the narratives of Judaism and Christianity, much of the story of the formation of Islam as a distinct religion is found in western Arabia, a region of the peninsula known as the Hijaz. Its holiest sites lie in this region, and the life of its founder was spent almost entirely there.

The faith is firmly connected to Arabic, the indigenous language of the region, especially in its holiest scriptures and also in cultural features like the survival of Arabic poetry as a means of recording the past. The tribal structure of pre-Islamic Arabian society also defined the first several decades of the religion and the states it inspired, which included a social hierarchy that made it nearly impossible to convert to Islam for the better part of the first century of the faith unless an individual was first embraced as a member of an Arab tribe. In this way, conversion was connected to the old ways of the Arabs, which did not require a convert to be of a particular ethnicity or bloodline but did require the adoption of the cultural traditions and markers of the Arabian tribal society. For these earliest adherents of the faith, it seems likely that they felt the one God had chosen the western Arabian peoples and their traditions for special recognition, and embracing these features was a prerequisite for being among the “chosen” people. But more influential than anything, perhaps, was the Muslims’ belief in the leadership and message of the man whom God chose as his final prophet, an Arab of the early seventh century from the Hijaz of western Arabia.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax