home | history

Islam's Rise from Cultural Diffusion

The Arabian peninsula is mostly desert. Towns were few, divided mainly among tribes with camels and flocks of cattle and sheep. Tribes sometimes compensated for periods of extreme dryness by raiding neighboring tribes or a passing caravan. And these were a polytheistic people. At the city of Mecca was a shrine, the Kaaba, a great sacred rock believed to have fallen as a meteorite from heaven, and said to contain something like 360 different gods. Once every lunar year, tribes would make a pilgrimage to the Kaaba, give respect to their pagan gods and trade in the city.

Monotheism had been encroaching on the Arab world. In Arabia were descendants of Jewish refugees from centuries before. There was Christianity in the Roman Empire and missionaries that had arrived in Arabia by the year 500, and Christianity was established in various trade centers. The entire Arabian province of Najran had been Christian. Christianity was established superficially in various other centers of trade, and Arabs living on the borders of what was left of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires had contacts with people and ideas from those empires. There were Arabs living next to the Byzantine empire.

Another great cultural diffusion was taking place. A tradesman from Mecca named Mohammad was familiar with Christianity's New Testament and the Old Testament of the Jews, and with the religion. He had become familiar with people who were neither Jewish nor Christian but had discarded the worship of idols and considered themselves as worshiping one god. One of them was the cousin of his first wife.

The earliest biography of the Prophet Muhammad of which scholars are aware dates to 767 – 135 years after his death, and this biography has been available through a later edition, compiled in 833. Muhammad is described as occasionally withdrawing to meditate in a cave outside his home town, Mecca, similar to the withdrawal of some Christian ascetics in Syria. Muhammad at around the age of 40 in the year 610, is described as hearing messages from God via Gabriel, an angel in Jewish folklore. Muhammad decided that the god he knew in Arabic as Allah was also Jehovah, the god of the Jews and Christians. He claimed to foresee the end of the world, a day of judgment when the dead would be awakened, when all would be judged according to their deeds and sent to either paradise or eternal flames.

Muslim scholars would view Muhammad's revelations as an intervention by God. The scholar Reza Aslan writes"

The Prophet Muhammad never claimed to have invented a new religion... his message was an attempt to reform the existing religious beliefs and cultural practices of pre-Islamic Arabia so as to bring the God of the Jews and Christians to the Arab peoples.

It was not a modest view. The Prophet Muhammad proclaimed that God had chosen him to preach the truth, that he was God's final and foremost messenger, superseding the message proclaimed by Jesus. In Mecca his tribal leaders thought he was imbalanced. Others ignored him. But pilgrims visiting the town had a high opinion of spiritual matters in what they considered a holy city, and they were favorably impressed by Muhammad's preaching. People from Yathrib (to be named Medina) invited him to their town, where he arrived in June 622, now around 52. And there, with people inclined to go to religious leaders for wisdom, townspeople went to him to settle their disputes.

In 623, some in Yathrib were resorting to raiding caravans that traveled from Mecca to Syria. Muhammad put himself at the head of these raids, justifying the raids on the unjustice of poverty and as part of a holy war against the rulers of Mecca for their having rejected his message. The raids were a movement of about 1,500 men in a town of perhaps 10,000. With its successes it grew. In March 624 his army had its greates success for far, at Bedr, where his followers killed from 50 to 70, distributed booting and made alliances with tribes outside Yathrib.

In early 627, Mecca sent an army of around 600 against Yathrib. If the Meccans had been successful, Muhammad would have been little known to history. But the Meccans, with swords, lances, bows and arrows, faced men who had masonry walls to fight behind. What was to be known as the Siege of Medina lasted two weeks. The Meccans, facing a gale wind and cold rain, withdrew.

In January 630, Muhammad and an army of around 10,000 appeared outside Mecca. Mecca's leaders responded to Muhammad's threat and to his promise to give them important positions under his rule. It was wiser than any kind of bombastic threat to slaughter. It would be a significant agreement. Muhammad took charge. The holy shrine, the Kaaba, was turned into a place for submission to just one god, Allah. Meccans of wealth were obliged to donate to the well being of the town's poor. In the town were mass conversions to what would be known as Islam (a word meaning submission to God). And Muhammad added Mecca's army to his own.

Islam's victory at Mecca alarmed various tribes elsewhere in Arabia. Having failed to unite militarily with Mecca before Islam's victory, It was a bit late for them. Now their armies were no match for Islam's army. In February and March, 630, Muhammad's military was victorious against them in various skirmishes. Across Arabia, tribes began sending deputations to Muhammad, recognizing his power and agreeing to deliver tax revenues. Rival prophets, without military power and overwhelmed by Muhammad. Military success made it seem that Allah favored Muhammad. Anyone else among the Arabs moved to call himself a prophet was to be called a false prophet


CONTINUE READING: The Brotherhood of Islam and Succession

to the top | home

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.