Islam, the third of the desert religions, began
among the Arab people. Their influence spread
over much of the Middle East to form an empire
that, at its height, was greater than that of Rome.
Islam means “peace” or surrender,” implying the
peace that comes from surrender to Allah. Islam
follows the Old Testament account through the
Creation, Adam, Noah, Shem and Abraham. But
where the children of Abraham and Sarah's son
Isaac became the Jews, the descendants of his
and the slave girl Hagar's son Ishmael went to
Mecca, a trading city in Saudi Arabia, and
became the Muslims.
Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was born
around 570 C.E. to poor parents in Mecca, into
the barbaric tribal world of the Bedouins. He
entered the caravan business and married a
wealthy older widow.
He spent 15 years in preparation in a cave in
Mount Hira, a huge barren rock on the outskirts
of Mecca. There he accepted Allah as the God,
the One and only. “La ilaha illa Allah!” “There
is no God but Allah,” became his cry.
After this experience, he hurried home and told
his wife what had happened, and she became
his first convert.
He spent the next 23 years bringing God’s
message to mankind. He saw Creation as a
deliberate act of Allah and a positive good,
which led to the triumph of Islamic science
during the Dark Ages in Europe.
They also preserved ancient Greek and Roman
writings through Europe's Dark Ages.
Muhammad saw the Jewish Old Testament and
Jesus as the basis for Islam.
The reaction to his teaching was hostile.
Monotheism threatened the revenues coming to
Mecca from Bedouin pilgrimages to the 360
shrines. His moral teachings called for an end
to licentiousness, which is never popular. And
his social teaching attacked the unjust economic
order of the times.
He taught that all men are equal in God’s sight.
He called on his followers to turn from false
gods, abandon their evil ways and prepare for a
day of reckoning.
At first, his teachings were unsuccessful. In
three years, he had made only 40 converts. By
the end of a decade, he had several hundred.
In 622, he was forced to flee from Mecca to
Medina (known as the Hegira, or flight), where
he lived an unpretentious life, milking his own
goats and mending his own clothes and
providing religious and political leadership. He
made himself accessible to his humblest
subjects, preaching justice and mercy.
Mecca fought against Medina, but Muhammad
triumphed. He rededicated the Kaaba stone in
Mecca to Allah.
By the time he died in 632, all Arabia was under
Despite the remarkable respect shown to him,
Muhammad is not the center of Islam, the Qur'an
is. The word means recitation, and Muhammed
felt it was the only miracle God worked through
him. He claimed that It came to him over 23
years from the Angel Gabriel and was seen as
continuation of the revelation to the Jews and a
Christians, without the "errors" of the Bible.
According to Huston Smith, whose History of World
Religions is the major source for this page,
"Whereas the Old and New Testaments are directly
historical and indirectly doctrinal, the Qur'an is
directly doctrinal and indirectly historical."
Islam considers each sentence of the Qur'an as a
separate revelation and each word as a means of
grace. That's why large portions are memorized in
As Stephanie Saldana writes, "In Islam, the language
of the Qur'an is considered to be a miracle. I have
met men from Pakistan who memorized the entire
Qur'an when they were boys without understanding
a word of it, just so they could possess that sound."
The Qur'an emphasizes the power of God and
posits a moral universe in which good and evil
matter and choices have consequences. Allah
inspires fear, but also love, compassion, mercy and
peace. He delivers his followers from affliction.
The human self is the foremost creation, but people
forget their divine origin.
Islam includes two obligations: 1) gratitude for life,
and 2) surrender.
The Five Pillars are principles of life in dealing with
1) The shahadah: "There is no god but Allah, and
Muhammad is his Prophet."
2) Prayer five times a day, which acknowledges
creatureliness before God.
3) Charity, providing for those less blessed.
4) Ramadan--fasting from dawn to sunset to show
self-discipline, frailty, dependence and compassion
for the hungry.
5) Pilgrimage to Mecca once during a lifetime to
promote equality and international understanding.
Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and closest
follower, was selected as caliph, or successor. He
took swift action against communities that wanted to
break away, using small armies to beat down
rebellions. In the government of the caliphate, swift
conquest brought holdings from Spain to the
western borders of India and China. The caliphate
lasted until the 13th century.
Abu Bakr was succeeded by Umar ibn al-Kattab, the
second caliph, who ruled until 644. Umar conquered
Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.
The real victor in the conquests was not the Arab
warlords but Islam itself. Islam may have sped the
conquests, but it showed greater staying power.
In the space of a hundred years, Muhammad's
followers conquered Armenia, Persia, Syria,
Palestine, Iraq, Egypt and Spain. If they hadn’t been
defeated by Charles Martel of France at the Battle
of Tours in 732, the entire Western world might be
Though I appreciate the Muslim emphasis on
hospitality, my experience in that area was mixed.
As a member of the Culver City Interfaith Alliance,
we met in various local churches and temples as well
as the recently completed King Fahad Mosque. I felt
uncomfortable in my stockinged feet and annoyed at
having to enter through a side door and back
stairway to pray standing with other women in a
sparse balcony behind glass. The men entered the
front door and prayed on carpets surrounded by
beauty. That didn't seem very hospitable--to me.
However, as a member of the Palms Neighborhood
Council, we met each month at the IMAN Cultural
Center. They regularly provided everything we
needed, as well as the best dates I've ever eaten.
The Rise of Islam
Images of Islam (clockwise from lower
left) King Fahad Mosque near our
home in Culver City; Kaaba in Mecca;
interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul;
exterior of mosque; the Qur'an; and
adherents at prayer.