A History of Islam
Its Origins, its Rise and its Decline
Back to History | by Piero Scaruffi
Muslims refer to the age before Mohammed as the "age of ignorance" (or "Jabiliyyah").
The Arabian peninsula was a relatively anarchic place, where different social
and political entities coexisted.
On one hand there was the Beduin tradition, that provided the backbone of the
The Beduins were, first and foremost, nomads organized in tribes.
They were also warriors, specializing in the "ghazw" or "razzia".
The North Arabian saddle was an invention that transformed the camel into
a means of transport and a combat animal. The Arabs had become skilled traveler,
specializing in long-distance travel across the deserts that had blocked the
expansion of the Mediterranean powers.
Camel-breeding nomads controlled the commercial networks of the Arabian
peninsula, frequently interacting with the neighboring empires of Rome (and
then Byzanthium), Nabatea (in today's Jordan) and Persia.
The poetry of these nomads was far from primitive. Both the
"qasida" (desert encampment ode, usually an
exaltation of one's tribe with references to
the loved one) and the "ghazal" (love poem) were refined forms of literature.
These people spoke the Arabic language, a language related to the Hebrew of
the Jews, and a script to write it evolved
from the Nabataean/ Syriac variation of the Aramaic alphabet.
The Bedouin life was organized around the tribe. There were endless wars among Bedouin tribes, but there was also a complex network of alliances. Within each tribe there ruled a spirit of social egalitarianism. A "shaykh" was elected as first among equals to keep peace within the tribe and demand respect from other tribes, but he was not a king (the job was not hereditary). A "hakam" played the role of the judge. Decisions made by hakams made up the "sunna", the ethical code of a tribe. Different tribes had different sunnas. In general, though, women were the property of men, and the harem was the status symbol of a shaykh. Both men and women practiced polygamy. There was no individual inheritance. Paternity was unimportant because the Beduin society was matrilinear.
Cities were created by two trends: Beduin traders becoming more sedentary, and Jews migrating from Palestine. The Jews were expelled from Palestine by the Romans after the 70 and 132 insurrections. Yathrib (Medina) is an example of an Arabian city that was originally settled by Jews. There were Jewish merchants, Jewish Bedouins, Jewish farmers, Jewish poets, Jewish warriors. There developed a symbiotic relationship between Jews and Arabs (Jews heavily Arabized, but Arabs heavily influenced by Jewish beliefs).
One city played a unique role in the Arabian peninsula: Mecca. Mecca was not situated at the crossroad of any major trading route, but it was situated near a oasis marked by a black cube, the kaba. Legend had it that the kaba was placed there by the first man, Adam, and then rediscovered by the Jewish prophet Abraham. Over the centuries it became a sanctuary for many gods. The Mecca before Mohammed was a model of religious tolerance. Pilgrims came from all over the peninsula to worship their gods, particularly during an annual pilgrimage (haji) to Mt Arafat. There were idols to the Nabataean gods (e.g., Kutba), to the goddess Uzza (Isis, Aphrodites), to Jesus and Mary. The chief god was Hubal, the Syrian god of the moon, chief god of Mecca. There was also a god named Allah, lord of the kaba, the Arab name for Enlil, an ancient Mesopotamiam god. who had three daughters: Manat, Allat, AlUzza. Oracles (kahin) interpreted the gods through ecstatic poetry, a procedure modeled after Delphi's oracle. Since there were 360 idols and the Pilgrims were expected to rotate around the kaba seven times, Mecca was probably also a cosmic metaphor (360 days of the year, seven astral bodies).
The only monotheists were the "hanif" (poets and visionaries), notably Zayd bin Arm who opposed both Judaism and Christianity but believed in only one God.
In the 4th century a man named Qusayy gained control of Mecca, collected the nearby idols, created a monopoly of pilgrimage and established the tribe of Quraysh as the wardians of the shrine ("the tribe of Allah"). Qusayy created an economic empire based on the lucrative captive market of pilgrims and on the advantages provided by the Kaba (Mecca as a sanctuary was exempt from warfare, the great commercial fairs coincided with the pilgrimage cycle). But the wealth of the Meccan elite violated the egalitarian spirit of the tribe and created social layers, with the Quraysh elite at the top. Usury became commonplace. Accumulation of individual wealth replaced the communitarian spirit of the Beduin tribe. Individual inheritance became commonplace, and this led to a patrilinear society.
There was much wealth in Arabia, although it was mostly traveling across it. Arabian trade routes to India became strategic to the Romans because of continuous warfare against the Sassanids.
At one point the Arabs were surrounded by Christians: Byzanthium in the north, Yemen in the south and Ethiopia to the east. Then there were the Zoroastrians of the Persian empire, and the Jews who had settled in the Arabian peninsula itself. Therefore the Arabian peninsula was the only place in the world where the three monotheistic religions met.
Somehow this religious tolerance upset many people, and several "prophets" emerged during the sixth and seventh centuries. One of them eventually succeeded.
Mohammed, an orphan at young age, was raised by his uncle with his younger cousin Ali. He worked as a caravan trader and married a widow who was much older than him. This widow, Khadija, was an exception in a male-dominated society: she was rich and she was powerful. It is likely that it was thank to her that young Mohammed became respected. It was in fact Khadija the first one who believed in Mohammed's visions. One can speculate that maybe it was Khadija who manufactured the whole story of the "messenger from Allah". After all, her only way to gain power in Mecca was through her husband. (Khadija was exposed to monotheism way before Mohammed: her cousin Waraqah ibn Nawfal was a Christian monk who had translated part of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Arabic).
The other early believers were: cousin Ali, Mohammed's slave Zayd, and finally Abu Bakr, a wealthy Qurayshi trader. Whatever the cause, at some point Mohammed started preaching against the kahins and for restoring an egalitarian society. More importantly, Mohammed adopted the view that Allah was not only the lord of Mecca, but the only god that Mecca should worship.
Mohammed's program was clearly a threat to the power of the Quraysh tribe: Mohammed's exclusive monotheism (all the other gods are false gods) would disrupt the economics of Mecca; and Mohammed's egalitarian program would disrupt the politics of Mecca. He had to leave the city and find shelter in Medina.
Medina, a Jewish city, probably provided a more favorable environment for his strict monotheism than the Beduin-inspired ethics of Mecca. In Mecca he and his "companions" basically created a commune according to a set of radical social, religious and economic reforms. To start with, Mohammed was both the shaykh, hakam and kahin. The tribe was not defined by genetics but by the "shahadah" (accepting Allah as the only god and Mohammed as his prophet). Any member of any tribe was welcome to become a member of Medina's new tribe (the "ummah"). Mohammed's egalitarian society was based on redistribution of wealth. Usury was banned. A mandatory charity ("zakat") was instituted.
After the first bloody battle, Mohammed also introduced a stricter form of patrilinear society in which women could not marry more than one man. Polygyny was accepted, probably to save the ummah after the war with the Quraysh (hundreds of widows and orphans) but it was now limited to four wives. Nonetheless, Mohammed married nine women in Medina, including nine year-old Aisha (probably reflecting the old tradition that the power of a shaykh was proportional to his harem).
Mohammed died after conquering Mecca. He was surprisingly generous with the Quraysh who had tried to assassinate him, leaving them pretty much in power. This was possibly a compromise reached by the two parties.
At Mohammed's death there was no Islam. Mohammed had simply created a social reform movement and a small kingdom. He had not created a body of religious beliefs and rituals.
The Quran collects what Allah revealed to Mohammed. The revelations were recorded (i.e. the book was written) by either Zayd ibn Thabit (Mohammed's "secretary") or Sa'id bin Zayd, who happens to be the son of hanif Zayd bin Arm, one of the early monotheists and a celebrated poet. Zayd ibn Thabit was the one asked by caliph Uthman to write the final version that was then sent to every Muslim city with the order to destroy any other version.
The problem is that Mohammed died without naming a successor or a succession rule. Since his tribe was now the tribe of all tribes, it was not clear which tribe was entitled to appoint a successor. The Quraysh claimed the right, based on the fact that they still controlled Mecca (and probably a huge army and a huge wealth). The tribe of Ali claimed it because it was Mohammed's tribe, and because Mohammed seemed to have named Ali as his successor although this was (and is) disputed. Abu Bakr was chosen as the compromise: he was one of Mohammed's early followers and he was a Quraysh. Abu Bakr's caliphate was initially devoted to keep the tribes together, as many were trying to secede following the death of Mohammed. But within a year Abu Bakr declared war to the Byzantine and Sassanid empires and managed to conquer Mesopotamia from the Sassanids and a piece of Syria from Byzanthium. Before being poisoned to death (an event that remains largely mysterious), Abu Bakr named his successor: Umar. He is the one who finished the job: he conquered the whole of Palestine, Syria and Egypt, as well as the whole of the Sassanid empire.
A Persian slave murdered Umar. The Mecca elite chose Uthman, a wealthy Quraysh, as the new caliph, angering Ali's followers. Ali had been denied the caliphate three times now. Uthman simply restored the power of the Quraysh in all its corrupt glory, appointing close relatives and friends to all the important posts around the newly formed empire. Ali's followers saw this succession as a coup by Mohammed's enemies, who were basically undoing what Mohammed had preached and done. There is little historical question that this is precisely what Uthman and his dynasty (the Umayyads) did, but they won the confrontation against Ali's followers. Uthman, probably fully aware of the importance of having religion on his side, is the caliph who had the Quran assembled in its current form. The Quran was therefore a book put together by order of the most corrupt of the early caliphs and an enemy of Mohammed. To make sure that his version of the facts would never be contested, Uthman had all other scriptures burned in Medina. Anyone who questioned the authenticity of Uthman's Quran was persecuted and probably did not survive to tell his story. Islam as it is today is the result of this corrupt dictator's actions, of an enemy of Mohammed. Uthman was so unpopular that there were revolts against his rule throughout the empire. He was eventually murdered during one these revolts. Ali was finally made the caliph. He proceeded to undo much of what Uthman had done. However, after a bloody civil war, Uthman's cousin Mu'awiya eventually defeated Ali's armies and Ali was murdered by a Kharijite (a small sect that was allied with Ali against the Quraysh but eventually seceded). The Quraysh tribe regained control of the empire and transformed itself into the Umayyad dynasty, with capital in Damascus (in the more comfortable and safe Christian land of Syria). In fact, the second Umayyad's caliph, Yazid, Mu'awiya's son, massacred Mohammed's family, notably his grandson Husayn, in Karbala in 680. That was the real ending of the war between Mohammed and the Quraysh: the Quraysh won, Mohammed lost. Yazid quickly quelled the rebellions that erupted throughout the empire, especially in the Arabian peninsula. Mecca and Medina were raided and thousands of people were killed.
It is likely that Ali's followers, the Shiites (and the Kharijites), were in favor of Mohammed's original egalitarian ideas, whereas the Quraysh/Umayyads simply wanted wealth and power. The former saw the victories against the Christians and the Zoroastrians as proof that Mohammed had been sent by Allah; the latter saw them as an unbelievable opportunity to live luxurious lives. Which they proceeded to do for the next century, totally abandoning the desert lifestyle of their ancestors. In 749 their corrupt dynasty was brought to an end by a Persian general, who installed a new dynasty, the Abbasid dynasty, and moved the capital to the Persian city of Baghdad. The entire bureaucracy of the empire was already largely Persian and Greek and Jewish. After the coup, it became mostly Persian. The Arabs had lost power (despite professions that the Abbasids descended from Mohammed's family, a claim that no Shiite bought).
Here is where the "conspiracy theory" begins.
But then there was no reason to choose Allah as his god: why not choose Yahweh himself, the god of the Jews? The Quraysh tribe that went on to establish the Umayyad dictatorship over the newly founded Islamic empire was the tribe of powerful warlords of Mecca, and they called themselves "the tribe of Allah". Mohammed fought them and defeated them. Thus it sounds weird that Mohammed would adopt their god as the only god. The explanation for this apparent paradox may lie in who wrote the history: the winner. Two generations after Mohammed's death, the Umayyad annihilated Mohammed's family and seized power. The first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya, was the son of Abu Sufyan, whom Islamic historians themselves considered the fiercest enemy of Mohammed because he both strongly opposed the new religion and tried to exterminate its early followers in a series of famous battles. Sunni Islam as we know it today was largely defined by the Umayyads. (Shiite Islam is, theoretically, closer to what Mohammed really wanted). Back in Mecca, before Mohammed invented Islam, the Quraysh/Umayyads were worshipping, first and foremost, Allah. One cannot help wondering whether it is possible that Mohammed was a Jew or at least believed in the Jewish god Yahweh and (whether prompted by the Jews of Medina or by his wife or by both) simply founded a movement of Jewish religious revival that was later hijacked by the Umayyads and turned into a worship of their god (not Mohammed's god) Allah.
After all, the first century of the Islamic empire was a century in which brutal warlords fought for control of it (three of the four early caliphs were murdered), not a century of smooth propagation of the faith.
The Quran was written by at least two people. The Quran is divided into two periods, the revelations in Mecca and the revelations in exile, in Medina. The Meccan revelations are peaceful. The Medina revelations are not. The former sounds like a paraphrase of the Christian literature of Syria (not surprising given the similarities between the Syriac script and the early Arabic script). The latter sounds like a manual of war. One wonders whether it is possible that the Quran is nothing but the combination of a book written or inspired by the Christians of Syria and a book written by the Umayyads to justify their imperialist campaign (with possibly an interpolation of a book written by the Jews od Medina to justify their attack on the Arabs of Mecca).
In the early Meccan suras Mohammed's god talks to him and calls himself "your lord": there is no mention of Allah. Suras 56,68,78, 89 and 93 inequivocally identify "the lord" with al-Rahman, which Muslims simply interpret as "the mercyful one" but who was a deity in his own, widely worshipped in Yemen. This is the most common name of Mohammed's god in the second Meccan suras. Sura 17 sounds like someone who, after the fact, is trying to prove that Allah and al-Rahman are different names for the same god: "Pray to Allah or pray to al-Rahman, whichever you call upon, to him belong the most beautiful names". But they were distinct gods in Mohammed's time, worshipped by different tribes, and one wonders why Mohammed would pick the name of this specific one over the many other worshipped around Arabia.
Thus the suspicions that Islam was hijacked
at the very beginning, and that one billion Muslims are praying to a
god that their prophet Mohammed wanted to destroy.
Whatever the origin of the Quran, the various political groups were fighting for control of the new empire. Most of them did not even try to find justification in the Quran. They were simply warlords intent on invading other people's lands, like all previous warlords of all previous empires had done.
What Mohammed had said mattered only to a tiny percentage of the population. As the caliphs fought for secular power, a new class emerged that was devoted solely to the religious aspect of the new empire: the "ulama". As very few people were familiar with Mohammed's teachings, the ulama were in charge of collecting them and interpreting them and passing them on to future generations. The ulama are the ones who defined Islam, by collecting the "hadith" that complement the Quran and by providing the "correct" interpretations of the Quran. They used the Quran and the hadith to work out a set of rules that defined how a good Muslim was supposed to behave, and even a set of laws for creating an Islamic society, the shariha. Thus Islam was hijacked a second time, or, better, a religion was invented that was only loosely based on what Mohammed had truly meant. The ulama used Mohammed's actions and words as the basis for creating something that Mohammed had never intended to create. In fact, there were different schools of ulama, each school coming up with different interpretations.
After a little over a century, the Abbasid empire began to implode. The Buyids (Shiites) seized de facto control of Persia. The Fatimids (Shiites) seize power in Egypt. The last of the Umayyads reigned over Spain. Soon the Turks began to descend from the Central Asian steppes and, while promptly converting to whatever Islam was, they slowly replaced the Persians as the leaders of the empire. Eventually the Ottoman Turks managed to reunited a large part of the Islamic world under one sultan.
Throughout this bloody soap opera, the scriptures (both the hadith and the interpretation of the Quran) had largely evolved independently, continuously revised by the reigning ulama. Until the 20th century, very few people could actually read it (literacy was very low in the Islamic lands). Besides, the Quran (according to the ulama) cannot be translated, and in those days very few Muslims understood Arabic (even today Arabs are a minority). The caliphs and sultans, besides the millions of ordinary Muslims, were largely indifferent to what the ulama were saying. The political leaders simply used Islam (as defined by the ulama) to impose some order on society. While the ulama were intolerant towards other religions, the political leaders were mostly very tolerant. Jews and Christians featured prominently in the political and the economic life of the Islamic empire. The political leaders cared for results, not for theology.
The Quran became very influential only in recent times. It never truly mattered before the "renewal movement" that started in the 19th century, largely united by the Mecca pilgrimages (where Muslims from all over the world exchanged ideas) and influenced by the radical thinking of the Arabian peninsula. That renewal movement never went too far because it did not have the funds to establish itself throughout the Islamic world. In the age of oil, Saudi Arabia became rich. The Arabian peninsula had never been rich or influential before in its entire history. It had been largely neglected and marginalized by all the empires that ruled it, starting with the very Umayyads that came from the Arabian peninsula (and moved the capital to Syria) and then through the Abbasids (who moved the capital to Baghdad) and the Ottomans (who ruled from Istanbul). For centuries the Arabian peninsula had been one of the least relevant provinces of those empires. When it became a main oil producer and oil became a precious resource for the West, Saudi Arabia suddenly emerged as an economic power within the Islamic world. Many of its business men were from families that had traditional ties to the radical groups of the peninsula, the ones who had been associated with the "renewal movement" from its beginning. The "charities" set up by these business men indirectly helped radical clerics to turn the Quran into a very important book for the entire Islamic world. The Quran had never been as popular and important for Muslims as it became at the end of the 20th century.
The Islamic world now lives in the age of the Quran, a book that was created by the very family that Mohammed fought against, by the very caliphs who exterminated Mohammed's family. Almost as important as the Quran (and, in fact, more important for practical purposes, are the hadith, that were compiled over the centuries by different groups of ulama.
Whether Mohammed was a good man or not, an Arab or a Jew, and whether he truly intended to found a new religion or simply to defend the Christian or Judaistic religion, we may never know. What we do know is that Islam as it is today has little to do with Mohammed's will, and probably goes against his will.
Anyone who says that the modern terrorists hijacked Islam forgets to mention that Islam was hijacked a long time ago. So it is not clear what the terrorists are hijacking.
See also The Historical Jesus and Christianity
How did the Arabs manage to conquer the two greatest empires in the world?Essentially, Mohammed's greatest achievement was to create a sense of unity among the Arabian tribes at the very time when the Byzantine and Persian empires were a) weakened by continuous warfare and b) further weakened by continuous civil strife. Byzantium and Persia were becoming less and less cohesive while the Arabs became very cohesive. Islam was fundamental in achieving that goal. The previous religions of the Arabian peninsula were mainly used to discriminate "us" from "them": each tribe had its own god, basically; and, viceversa, each god was a marker of belonging to a specific tribe. By imposing just one god for all Arabs, Mohammed de facto created one huge tribe, unified by a sense of solidarity ("asabiya") just like each tribe had individually been united. At the same time the opposite process was underway in the Byzantine and Persian empires. When the Arabs attacked, the armies and the peoples of those empires opposed very little resistance.
The Arabs had never been motivated to attack their neighbors because they were too busy attacking each other. For centuries the most popular way to become rich and powerful was to attack the caravans. Mohammed himself did so. However, after Mohammed created the greater Arabian tribe those skilled "robbers" were forbidden to attack each other. In a sense, the conversion to Islam forced them to turn their skills against the people who lived outside the Arabian peninsula: the Persians and the Byzantines.
Why did the great Islamic civilization collapse?In order to answer that question one has to look at the reasons why the Islamic civilization was so successful in the first place. When it started, the Islamic civilization had three fundamental features. 1. For the first time in history it unified the three great civilizations of the West (Greek, Jewish and Persian). 2. For the first time in history it created a huge economy extending from the Mediterranean to the Far East (a fact that created an unprecedented economic boom). 3. There were initially very few Muslims (Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews, not to mention Hindus and Buddhists in the East, were more numerous than Muslims in the areas controlled by the Muslim elite).
Now fast forward to the 16th century. 1. The Greek-Persian-Jewish influence has been replaced by the influence of the Turkish tribes that have conquered the Islamic world (first the Seljuqs, then the Mongols, then the Timurids, then the Ottomans) and the Turks bring a completely different set of values than the Greeks, the Persians and the Jews. 2. The Europeans have learned how to sail around Africa and trade directly with the Far East bypassing the Islamic world altogether, while other Europeans have just discovered the Americas, making the Islamic world a lot less relevant to the world's economy. 3. Muslims have become the vast majority in all Islamic countries, and the "inshallah" mindset has taken over the yearning for progress and innovation of Jews, Persians, Christians, etc. The cosmopolitan Islam of the past continued to reign for a bit in Turkey (if you think that the USA was the first case of massive European and non-European emigration, think again: it was Istanbul), but, in general, the trend was in the opposite direction.
There followed four centuries of stagnation. This period of stagnation was the subject of many books published by Arab scholars in past decades, notably Philip Hitti's "History of the Arabs" (1937) and the Arab scholars who contributed to "Perspective of the Arab World", published in the Atlantic Monthly in october 1956. The general consensus was that very little happened in the societies of the Arab world (and of the Islamic world at large) between 1516 (the year when the Ottomans conquered the Middle East andf Egypt) and 1798 (the year when Napoleon began the European conquest of the Arab lands). Ironically, i think that today's "renaissance" of the Islamic world (a political renaissance) is largely the consequence of the European invasion. Muslim societies were living a stationary traditional life until the Europeans invaded them, bringing with them a different set of values. Those values (notably nationalism and socialism) eventually permeated the Muslim societies and triggered the political renaissance that, via a turbulent rollercoaster of secular dictators, eventually led to the Arab Spring. Another contributing factor that is often underestimate is the influence that emigration had in the originating countries. Millions of Muslims emigrated to Western Europe. Europeans complain about those immigrants messing up their societies, but in reality the Islamic societies from which they came have probably been more affected: those millions of emigrants have sent back not only money but also a "western" view of society. They have failed to change Western society (that has in fact accelerated its secular scientific capitalistic course), whereas Western society, through them, has spread its (secular scientific capitalistic) ideology to the Islamic world.
See also The Historical Jesus and Christianity
Al Jazeera on the Palestinian elections
Why are portraits of Mohammed banned?
The rise of the Quran
Intolerance and modern Islam
Most websites on Islam written by Muslims contain wild distortions of the historical record. The notable exception is probably Al Islam, that contains some relatively accurate biographies.