History of Islam

By John Lerwill. Last Updated Oct 11 2023

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The history of Islam is replete with activity. The most well-known aspect of that activity is in its expansion from its initial home in the 7th c. AC (AD) at Mecca and Medina to its extension around the Mediterranean to the west, and to Persia and India in the East. Eastwards it ultimately went even further, to the eastern seaboard of Africa and across to China, Indonesia and Malaysia. In Europe, Islam is still evident in the Balkans to-day, and much evidence of its previous existence can still be seen in Spain. At one point in the 8th c., the proponents of Islam even sent a scouting force to mid-France, where they were sent packing by Charles Martel and his army.

"Islam" means "Submission to God (Allah)". A follower of Islam is a Muslim. A related Arabic word is "Salaam", meaning Peace, and it is the stated intent of Islam to promote Peace. It is not, therefore, a warlike religion as some would have it. It is a religion that rests upon its holy book (the Qur'an) and the teachings of its Prophet Muhammed. However, within the peoples of Islam there has always been argument, and there have always been quarrels over matters such as rights to succession of leadership after the death of the Prophet. One notable quarrel nearly resulted in the complete annihilation of the Prophet's progeny at Kerbala (modern Iraq). This brought about the first major division of Islam into two sects - the Sunni (followers of the Book - the Qur'an and the daily practises of the Prophet embibed in Hadith) and the Shia, who followed the word of the Prophet's son-in-law 'Ali, as the Shia allege that 'Ali was given that right by the Prophet himself before he died. Since then there have been further divisions of those two sects into further sects, so to-day there are many different faces of Islam, though the broad Sunni/Shia division is the main one. In the main, however, most Muslims regard Muslims of other sects as brothers and sisters of the same religion.

For an enlarged background to Islam, please click here (a PDF file requiring Adobe Acrobat Reader).
But perhaps a most intriguing aspect of Islam, and little considered to-day, is that from the outset civilization and learning grew as quickly as its territorial acquisition. Much was absorbed from the Greeks, Persians, Jews and Hindus and built on, so the subjects of medicine, science in general, architecture, philosophy and technology were greatly advanced with the Muslims. The Christian world struggled to keep up!

In embibing so much from other cultures, one must here pay reference to the Tolerance of Islam towards other peoples. This toleration was not simply secular - it included religious toleration, also, particularly towards the Jews and Christians, who, like the Muslims, can trace religious descent from the Prophet Abraham. Such toleration is particularly observable during a classic Islamic period during the Muslims' occupation of Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) that eventually ended in 1492, after several hundreds of years.

To-day, there are many people - particularly intellectual Jews, and a journalist in the UK's Daily Mail - who try by any means to discredit the Muslim law and culture, and claim that their culture has always been hard done by by the Muslims, and try to find holes in al-Qur'an to justify their thinking. Unfortunately their lack of understanding - in particular that al-Qur'an cannot be understood except by those steeped in the ancient Arabic language and in spiritual insight - makes a mockery of their vindictiveness. Islam is a religion of the heart, and thus a Muslim who understands the truth of his religion will look for the heart of his fellow man - even if he be of another religion. Unfortunately, the wars in the Middle East that have been building up over several generations tend to shroud the truth of Islam - there has been too much suffering and anger; but it is only by going back to the true spiritual roots that peace will emerge.

From this, a thought occurs that Islam has always been more than just a religion - it is a total way of living where politics, science, the arts and philosophy are inter-woven. The Muslim's statement that "There is no God but God" is a literal belief. God is present in everything.

Please click on the following link as much of the subject of Islam in its modern setting is further discussed therein.

Link to "Islam Re-thought".

Basic Knowledge of Islam

Islam is, according to its adherents, the last revealed Word of God through His Prophet (nabi) and messenger (rasul), Mohammad son of Abdullah, as contained in the Qur'an. Mohammad was born in the 6th Christian century in Arabia, and began his Islamic mission at the age of 40. Islam is, however, founded on the religion of Abraham (Ibrahim), and the Judaic/Christian prophets Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus (Issa), together with Mohammad, constitute the six major prophets recognised by Islam. But tradition and the Qur'an states that there were many thousands more prophets preceding Mohammad, who is the last according to Islam.

Following the death of Prophet Mohammad, there was the 'Righteous Caliphate' who led the Ummah (people of Islam). There were four in turn: Abu Bakr, Uthman, Omar and then 'Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law. Following this, Islam was split; the third caliph, of the aristocratic family of the Omayyads, laid the foundation for a hereditary Caliphate. Later, there was the Abbasid Caliphate, who moved the Islamic capital to Baghdad.

The feeling, nurtured by the opposition to the Omayyads, that Ali and his descendants were the rightful heirs of the Prophet became incorporated in the religious dogma of the discontented factions. The schism between Orthodox (Sunnite) and Alid (Shiite) Islam has continued to run throughout Islam down to the present day. Islam is to-day seen to be consisting of these two main threads, or groups. The name SHIA originates from the phrase shia-atul 'Ali, relating to that party of Muslims (those who practise Islam) who followed the authority of 'Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet, on the death of the Prophet. The SHIA based their belief on the apparent authority of the Prophet himself, just prior to his death, on the way from returning from pilgrimage (hajj).

The SUNNI practise to-day represents the vast majority of Muslims, and the SHIA are mostly to be found in Iran and Iraq. The SHIA, however, are themselves now broken in two main camps, and the most orthodox of these are those to be found in Iran and Iraq.

TEACHINGS: Those emanating from 'ALI and his progeny

To the SHIA Muslims (for a definition of SHIA, please see PRELIMINARY), the divine wisdom of the Qur'an was most properly divulged by 'Ali, particularly after the death of the Prophet. 'Ali was vested with the power of ta'wil (inner teaching, or wisdom), and, accordingly, was recognised as the first Imam (spiritual leader) by the Shia. Subsequent Imams must be of the progeny of 'Ali and appointed by the Imam of the time, prior to his death.

The teachings of the Shia are concerned with two major forms, or aspects of life; the outward (zahir), and inner (batini). A good example of these two aspects is in the meaning of the word jihad (or sacrifice for God). The Western World is probably unaware that the GREATER jihad (in batini - inner - Islam) is action against one's own base self, NOT (for example) action against others in the form of unwarranted terrorism.

One Shia Imam (the fifth or sixth, depending on Shia group), Jaffer-as-Saddiq, is also known to have had particular influence over the Muslim community. He had the attention of many spiritual groups and individuals in Islam, both Sunni and Shia, and also (remarkably), the alchemist Gabir (Jabir). After Imam Jaffer, there was some confusion as to which son was to carry on the mantle as Imam, particularly as his eldest son (Isma'il) was thought to have died before his father. Imam Jaffer is known only to have confirmed the passing of Imamate to Isma'il, however, and as Isma'il was just not there on the demise of the Imam, Musa assumed the Imamate. Thereby began the first major division in the Shia Imamate, as Musa's line became known as 'the Twelvers' (ending in a 12th Imam without progeny), to-day being the most orthodox branch and living mainly in Iran/Iraq, whilst the believers in Isma'il later became known as Isma'ilis.

Amongst the Shia, there is a party that, according to them, still has an Imam whose ancestry derives directly from 'Ali. This is the main group of a branch of the Shia which is to-day generally called the Nizari Isma'ili Shia. They are also called Agakhanis, whose Imam is the current Aga Khan. His followers are scattered world-wide, and are thought to number about 20 millions, though a number is difficult to determine, particularly as their habitat is in the midst of Russia and China, as well as the major countries of the Western World, and elsewhere.

There are also other 'esoteric' traditions in Islam, generally called SUFI-ism. Most of these batini traditions are known to have stemmed from 'Ali also, although some strands have emanated from other 'Companions of the Prophet', such as Abu Bakr (the first caliph after the death of the Prophet). There are many strands in the SUFIs, each based on the name of a spiritual leader who is known to have passed on the spiritual message, such as Naqshband, and Rumi, who is also known for his poetic, but allegorical, writings, and is known to have been greatly influenced by Shams-i-Tabriz, who is strongly suspected as having been an Isma'ili missionary (da'i). Where Islam spread, the mystical element of the faith went also. It became most profoundly developed in Asia Minor, Persia, Afghanistan and India. Ibn al-'Arabi (born in Spain during the Omayyad Caliphate there) is a very major name in Sufic tradition. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith (an attempt at reconciling Hindu/Islamic disparities), was himself a Sufi - or at least hugely influenced by Sufi thought.