During this holy month of Ramadan, it is important to remember how Islam, with its 1.9 billion adherents, came to be the second largest religion in the world, just after Christianity (2.3 billion).
Islam is the youngest of the world’s main religions and, according to Muslim theology, the complete and final religion and way of life for all times and all peoples. The Quran, Islam’s sacred book, gave Muslims a historical mission: chiefly, to create an ethical and just society where every person, particularly the weak and vulnerable, would be treated with respect and dignity. Islam teaches that dignity and reverence are bestowed by God (Allah in Arabic) upon every one of His creatures. Therefore, dignity is an inherent quality that all human beings possess.
In order to establish a society based on such egalitarian principles in Mecca, around the year 610 CE, when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) began to receive revelations, Arabs had to mend their ways and live according to God’s will. This was no simple feat and it required, first of all, ascertaining what God’s will entailed in practical terms.
The challenge was enormous because Meccan society at the time was plagued by inequality and ethical conundrums of all kinds, most of them derived from an extreme inclination towards material wealth at the expense of ancient tribal values. The poor suffered tremendously since instead of being looked after, as traditional Arab values dictated, they were often trampled upon in the Quraysh’s[i] aggressive and relentless pursuit of affluence. There were constant tribal fights and inter-tribal murders to avenge a tribe’s honor or seek revenge for a murder or crime committed by the other tribe.
Prophet Muhammad was deeply concerned about the state of his society, which was undergoing a crisis of values.
It was in such difficult climate that Muhammad ibn Abdallah, a 40-year-old merchant and trader with an honorable reputation for an excellent character, was about to change the destiny of the Arabs and that of the entire world. Muhammad was deeply concerned about the state of his society, which he understood was undergoing a crisis of values. In order to reflect and meditate, he would seclude himself every year, during the month of Ramadan, in a cave at the top of Mount Hira (also known as Jabal an-Noor) on the outskirts of Mecca. During his periods of isolation, he would fast, pray, and ask God for help in reforming his community.
He had been doing these month-long retreats for a few years when, on the 17th night (or in the last 10 days of the month as the exact date is not clear) of Ramadan of 610 CE, Archangel Gabriel appeared to him and, shaking him to his core, ordered him to read (iqra). Muhammad was so overpowered that he questioned his own sanity. He replied to Gabriel that he could not read, for he was illiterate. But the archangel kept repeating his command. Muhammad confided only in his wife, Khadija, and her cousin, Waraqa ibn Nawfal.
Khadija, a supportive wife and highly intelligent woman, was certain that the words Prophet Muhammad heard from Angel Gabriel came from God. She convinced Muhammad to trust himself and gave him much needed tranquility. In fact, Khadija was the first convert to Islam. During the first two years after receiving these revelations, Muhammad decided not to share the message yet.
Once he felt the timing was proper, and after more revelations had come, Muhammad began preaching the principles of Islam and sharing the Quran with his community. However, in these early years, spreading the message of Islam was anything but easy. He was mocked, attacked, and considered a lunatic. Nonetheless, the strength of Muhammad’s conviction, faith, and the power of his message began to gradually win him a few followers, among which was his young cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, his friend Abu Bakr and Uthman ibn Affan, a young affluent merchant from a powerful Umayyad family.
Many of the first converts to Islam were among the poor and the slaves, who felt empowered by the message of equality Muhammad was teaching and living.
Many of the first converts to Islam were from among the poor and the slaves, who felt empowered by the message of equality Muhammad was teaching and living. For the first time in history, Muhammad claimed that no man was superior to another based on race, wealth, or anything other than good deeds and faith. He also proclaimed that taking care of the destitute was a community’s duty because wealth does not belong to a person but is rather a trust and blessing from Allah to be used in the right ways.
However, despite these small triumphs, Muhammad faced tremendous opposition and even life threats, which forced him and his emerging ummah (community) to exile themselves in Yathrib (Medina) for about seven years (622-629 CE). In Medina, Muhammad and his followers were welcomed and there, he built the first mosque and worked on distinguishing Islam from Christianity and Judaism while continuing to receive revelations and building his community. He also formed alliances with Bedouin tribes that embraced Islam.
Unlike other religions that distinguish between the mundane and the sacred, Islam considers all worldly matters important and an intrinsic part of the religion,[ii] including governance and politics. In order to live in the world as good Muslims, Muslims needed a society that functions ethically at every level, one that promotes the wellbeing of the community as a whole, rather than the benefit of a few individuals at the expense of others. This was what the Prophet, and later his successors, set out to build.
The people of Mecca continued to oppose Prophet Muhammad for years and, even while living in Medina, he had to fight several battles against the Meccan tribes. Finally, in 629 CE, with about 1500 followers, Muhammad returned to Mecca triumphant, unopposed, and without having to shed blood. He continued to receive revelations, one at a time, usually in response to a specific crisis or problem he was facing.
The massive growth of Islam was due, at least partially, to the Quran’s beauty.
These revelations guided him in reforming his society and building an empire that, over the next 12 centuries, would expand monumentally, with a number of believers unmatched by any other religion. The massive growth of Islam was due, at least partially, to the Quran’s beauty, which resonated with the Arabs’ and other future Muslims’ “deepest aspirations, cutting through their intellectual preconceptions in the manner of great art, and inspiring them, at a level more profound than the cerebral, to alter their whole way of life.”[iii] The Quran’s message is an immensely powerful and profoundly transformative one.
Muhammad’s following continued to grow and, before his death in 632 CE, merely a few years after his return to Mecca, most of the Arabian Peninsula had embraced Islam and an empire had emerged. It is important to emphasize that Muhammad did not think he was founding a new religion. He believed he was bringing monotheism to the Arabs since they had not previously received a revelation in their language nor had had a Prophet.
Islam actually accepted many aspects of Judaism and Christianity, acknowledging and respecting their holy books and prophets including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mary, among others. Muhammad did not claim divinity. He was a man, like all others, but one of an exceptional character and unshakable faith. He believed he was God’s final Prophet.
The Quran was revealed throughout 22 years and the revelations were shared by Muhammad to his people orally. Many were brought to tears by the beauty of the recitation and the exquisiteness of its high-level Arabic language, which disarmed even the hardest of hearts. Muhammad’s determination, strength of character and unwavering faith in God and in his mission are responsible for the successful spread of Islam, which continues to this day. Prophet Muhammad has been deemed the most influential person in the history of humanity several times.
Muhammad’s determination, character and unwavering faith in God and in his mission are responsible for the spread of Islam.
Today, Islam is the fastest-growing religion. It is puzzling to ponder how an illiterate Arab merchant from 7th century Arabia managed to spread Islam so rapidly and so pervasively. The answers are manifold: the life-altering principles of the Quran; the intellectual coherence of the Islamic faith; the linguistic beauty of the Quran, which overwhelmed even those who opposed Muhammad’s message; the mercantile and military might and conquests of the Arabs; the ethical and highly functional community the first Muslims created; the example they set everywhere in the world they went, which inspired many to willingly convert; their focus on charity, which created communities where the poor and weak were taken care of; and finally perhaps, the particular time in history when Islam emerged. The reasons for the pervasive and successful spread of Islam are numerous, and they will be explored in more detail in subsequent articles.
[i] The Quraysh were a mercantile Arab tribe that controlled Mecca and its Ka’aba. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born into the Hashemite clan of this tribe.
[ii] In its broad sense, Islam and its Sharia encompass most, if not all, areas of life, ranging from matters of theology and belief, worship, behavior and human relations, diet, commerce, governance, war, economy, crime, etc. It is, in the widest sense, the right and moral way to live in the world, to act towards oneself, other human beings and the entire creation. It is the Way or Path that God wills each and all creation to follow, a universal order. In the Qur’anic worldview, the human is the only being that accepted the trust of free will and with it, a heavy burden of self-responsibility. The rest of creation, lacking volition, innately submits to the Divine Law.
[iii] Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 2). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition (Location 456 of 3232).