Islam was founded in the seventh century by Muhammad. Orphaned at a young age, Muhammad was raised by his uncle in Mecca, located in the Arabian Peninsula. At the time, the Arabian Peninsula served as thoroughfare for commerce, causing cross-cultural interaction centered around Mecca. This of course created a mixed culture with varying beliefs in polytheism (belief in many gods) and animism (belief that everything has a soul) amongst the Arabians. There was also a strong presence of Christian and Jewish communities.

Early years of Muhammad and cave experience

With all the differing beliefs, Muhammad found himself in a pluralist religious environment. He received little education and worked as a camel driver until going under the employment of a successful business woman named Khadijah, who would later become his wife. Through working for Khadijah, Muhammad’s contact with monotheism grew and would prove to be a major factor in his spiritual development.

While meditating in a cave outside of Mecca, Muhammad received the revelation of the Qur’an from a supernatural being who claimed to be the angel Gabriel.

What seemed like a rather normal upbringing, Muhammad’s life would eventually come to a radical change. While meditating in a cave outside of Mecca, Muhammad received the revelation of the Qur’an from a supernatural being who claimed to be the angel Gabriel. The encounter was profound as Gabriel commanded Muhammad to read from the Qur’an even though Muhammad was illiterate. Nonetheless, Gabriel implored Muhammad to acknowledge Allah’s greatness, and Muhammad took up the task by memorizing the Qur’an. Muhammad would continue to receive miraculous revelations as a Prophet of Allah.

Three important distinctions of Islam and its five pillars

Islam is considered to have three main distinctions: (1) Allah is only one (this emphasis serves as an Islamic pushback against Christianity’s Trinitarian beliefs, but in reality is a failure in understanding Christian monotheism); (2) humans’ must submit to Allah’s will; (3) there will be a day of judgment where people will be judged according to their submission towards Allah. The separation between humanity and God is drastic in Islam. It would be wrong to see God the way Christians do, as a personable being who is a friend and father.

At the core of Muslim life are the Five Pillars of Islam. These acts are what frames what it means to be a obedient Muslim.

Five Pillars of Islam

1. Faith or Shahada

The Shahada is a declaration of faith that there is only one God (Allah) and Muhammad is his messenger.

2. Prayer or Salat

Performing five daily prayers.

3. Charity or Zakāt

The practice of giving charity to those in financial need

4. Fasting or Sawm

Islam has three different forms of fasting, but this pillar is primarily concerned with the ritualistic, yearly fast of Ramadan that commemorates the first revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad.

5. Pilgrimage to Mecca or Hajj

A journey to Mecca that every able-bodied Muslim is obligated to make at least once in their lifetime.

Conflict in Mecca and the move to Medina

Converts were few at first. Although Muhammad was gaining a following, many people were skeptical of his message. After ten years, Muhammad’s followers reached into the thousands. They would label their belief Islam, which means “submission to Allah” and classified themselves as Muslims or “those who submit to God.”

They would label their belief Islam, which means “submission to Allah” and classified themselves as Muslims or “those who submit to God.”

As the religion continued to grow, they came into conflict with the city fathers in Mecca. Considering that Mecca provided multiple religions with an opportunity to worship their gods, the outspoken Muslim message of one God was causing conflict, troubling locals who gained their revenue from idol worship. As tensions grew, Muhammad and his followers began to be persecuted by the city and were eventually subjected to physical oppression. This caused Muhammad and his followers to slowly flee from Mecca. By 622 A.D., Muhammad and the remainder of his resident followers escaped to Medina—this would be later called the Hijra.

Once in Medina, Muhammad and his followers were able to gain political power. They were well received by the Medinan people. Muhammad was even elected and given the responsibility of judge over unresolved disputes. This ultimately provided the opportunity for Muslims to form an independent community. There were other inhabitants who were affiliated with different religions in Medina. Muhammad attempted to demonstrate tolerance by forming a pact with the Jews, which stipulated that Jews were not expected to become Muslims; however, this would not last for long.

Islam’s tipping point

Muhammad’s success and growth in Medina would serve as a tipping point for Islamic change. Shortly after the pact was formed between the Muslims and Jews, an assassination attempt against Muhammad’s life was made. According to Islamic reports several Jews were the perpetrators, but this remains the only historical testimony. Upon this happening Muhammad ordered the mass execution of hundreds of Jews, whether they had been involved in the plot or not and effectively ended their treaty of peace. This alleged violation of their arrangement led to the accepted Qur’anic belief permitting Muslims to break treaties with non-Muslims if there is perceived doubt that the unbelievers will uphold their agreement.

In classic irony Muhammad transitioned from the persecuted to the persecutor.

Though Islam began as a small persecuted religion, it grew to become a religion that itself would spread its message through violence. In classic irony Muhammad transitioned from the persecuted to the persecutor. From this point forward Islamic influence would continue to grow, and Muhammad would eventually return to Mecca and capture it through force in the name of Allah.

Muhammad the founder and best representative of the Islamic faith lived by the sword to spread his beliefs. Many things have come into question in his life: his marriage to a six year old girl while in his 50’s which he consummated when she was only nine years of age; his multiple wives; his distasteful views on adoption; his views toward women; his denial of Jesus crucifixion—a fact that even the most liberal of scholars believe; his violent treatment towards people who differed from him—especially Christians and Jews; his poor understanding of even the basic Christian histories like Mary and communion; and his ambiguous views on how to actually please Allah and enter paradise. Still, despite all of the strange, messianic, prophetic and violent nature of his ministry, once Mecca was captured and Islam continued to spread, Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D. would solidify Islam as a dominant religious movement.