Chapter 2: A Brief History of Islam
by Charles Welty
he growth of
Islam represents one of the greatest challenges facing the Christian
church as it enters the 21st century. Islam is the fastest growing
religion in the world. Muslims make up the largest religious
immigrant group coming into the United States and, as a group, the number
of adherents to Islam are expected to surpass the followers of Judaism in
North America within ten years. Islam will then be the second largest
religion next to Christianity in America. Muslims and their faith in Islam
are no longer foreigners. Muslims are here in America; they run businesses
in our neighborhoods; their children are in our schools.
To meet the challenge of Islam, we Christians will have to face the fact
that we are, in general, woefully unprepared to face that challenge.
Islam is a mystery to most of us. Everything about Islam is an
enigma. Even the language of the Qur’an,
Arabic, is a symbol of the incomprehension most of us feel toward Islam
and its Muslim adherents.
An Aggressive Religion
Islam is an aggressive religion.
One of the twentieth century’s more prolific English language Muslim
apologists and commentators, A. Yusuf Ali, says “Before or after
Mohammed’s life on this earth, all who bowed to God’s Will were Muslims,
and their religion is Islam.”
Islam is also, as we shall see, an eclectic religion that is unitarian in
the true sense of the word, seeking to embrace Jews and Christians, as
well as Arabs. In his notes to Sura 43, Ali goes on to say:
verses 26-28 an appeal is made to the pagan Arabs, that Islam is their
own religion, the religion of Abraham their ancestor; in verses 46-54,
an appeal is made to the Jews that Islam is the same religion as was
taught by Moses, and that they should not allow their leaders to make
fools of them; in verses 57-65 an appeal is made to the Christians that
Islam is the same religion as was taught by Jesus, and that they should
give up their sectarian attitude and follow the universal religion,
which shows the Straight Way.
Islam, then, through the teachings of
its holy book, the Qur’an, redefines traditional Judeo-Christian terms,
events, and historical personages to fit its own particular views and
Long before Mohammed arrived on the
scene, Arabia’s history of paganism and polytheism was in decline.
In Mecca, the Arabs worshiped Allah as the supreme Semitic God, but their
monotheism was corrupted by worship of a number of female deities,
including Al-Lat, Al-Uzzah, and Al-Manat,
whom they regarded as the daughters of Allah, and who represented the Sun,
Venus, and Fortune.
Dermenghem comments on the state of idolatry in Mecca at the time:
The Ka’bah, a cubical structure exposed to the sky, with the
sacred Black Stone in a corner, stood in the middle of a large open
square, where there was also another sacred stone, the maqam of
Abraham, and the sacred well of Zamzam.
Idols of unhewn or rudely sculptured stone surrounded the temple,
around which was performed the essential rite of tawaf, a
seven-fold circumambulation in a counter-clockwise direction.
The pilgrimage was completed by visits to other holy sites…
In addition to its polytheistic
communities, Arabia included a number of Jews and Christians.
and the northern oases were home to a prosperous and influential Jewish
community. Christians in Mecca
included Abyssinian slaves, artisans, Syrian business men, and a number of
famous Arabian poets.
By the seventh
century, a number of Arab teachers (known as hanifs),
apparently impressed by the monotheism of the Jewish and Christian
religions, were already rejecting idolatry for a somewhat “ascetic”
religion of their own.
Although comparatively few in number, the hanifs
undoubtedly influenced Mohammed; one hanif
by the name of Waraqah
was the cousin of Mohammed’s wife, Khadija
It was into this scene—ripe for a change—that Mohammed, the founder of
Islam, was born.
Mohammed was born in Mecca sometime
around the year 570.
His name was either given to him at birth or is a nickname which means
the Praised One.
He was also
known for a time as Abu’l-Qasim,
a title of honor which means “the Father of al-Qasim.”
Mohammed’s father, Abdullah
of the tribe of Quraysh, died a few months before Mohammed was born.
His mother, Aminah, died in 576 when Mohammed was a child. His
paternal grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib,
of the clan of Hashim,
who had the privilege of distributing water from the sacred well of Zamzam
to local pilgrims, gave the young child to a wet nurse by the name of
Halimah, a Bedouin woman of the tribe of Banu Sa’d. Mohammed spent
his early years with her and a foster brother in the mountain areas near
Ta’if as a shepherd boy.
Mohammed, then, was raised first by his grandfather. When Mohammed
was eight years old, ‘Abd al-Muttalib died. He was then brought up
by his uncle, Abu Talib. As a young man, Mohammed traveled the
trade routes by camel caravan between Mecca and what is now Syria. At the
age of 25, Mohammed met Khadija, a rich widow who was fifteen years older
than he. Mohammed began to conduct her trade caravans and soon
entered service as her steward. He married her in 595. It
was a happy marriage which resulted in three sons (who died at an early
age) and four daughters. The youngest daughter, Fatimah,
was the only child who bore any descendants to Mohammed. He also
adopted at least one child, Zaid ibn Harithah,
who had been enslaved in a desert raid. Khadija died after 24 years
of marriage in 619.
The Call of the “Prophet”
According to Muslim tradition, in the month of Ramadan in the year 610,
while in prayer and meditation in a cave, Mohammed was visited by the
In a “vision” not unlike that of Joseph Smith, the founder of the
early 19th century Mormon cult, the angelic visitor came to Mohammed while
he was in a trance. Gabriel is alleged to have said, “Recite!”
Emile Dermenghem relates
Muslim tradition on the call of Mohammed:
According to the tradition and to the biographies it was a night in the
last third of Ramadan, in a grotto on Mount Hira,
when there took place the infusion of the uncreated Word into the
relative world, the “coming down” of the Book into the heart of the
Prophet (the Night of Destiny, the Blessed Night of the Qur’an).
While he was sleeping, a mysterious being, holding in his hand a roll of
material covered with signs, ordered him to read (or recite, or chant).
“I do not know how to read,” said Mohammed. “Read,” the angel
repeated again twice, winding the material round the neck of the
Gabriel allegedly replied, “Recite in the name of your Lord who created,
created man from clots of blood.”
Upon awakening, Mohammed is reported to have left the cave only to see
left the cave… and suddenly he heard himself called and greeted by the
name of Messenger of Allah. He looked up and saw an enormous man
standing on the horizon. Dazzled, Mohammed turned and once again
saw the angel. From every part of the heaven the angel would
stand and gaze at him in silence.
home to his wife and told her all that had happened. Khadija
encouraged him to heed the “call” and the founding of Islam began.
Mohammed never claimed to perform miracles, healings, or other divine
actions. He claimed to be a “warner” sent by God, a messenger sent
forth to “confirm” previous Old Testament and New Testament scriptures.
This Qur’an is not such as can be produced by other than God; on the
contrary it is a confirmation of (revelations) that went before it and a
fuller explanation of the Book—wherein there is no doubt—from the Lord
of the world.
It must be noted, however, that right
from the beginning of the so-called “revelations,” Mohammed’s angelic
visitor not only failed to “confirm” the scriptures, but instead
contradicted Old Testament teachings that man was originally created from
“the dust of the earth” and not from “clots of blood.” As noted in
(“Basic Islamic Fallacies and Inconsistencies”)
and elsewhere in this work,
the contradictions between the Bible and the Qur’an were only just
Events in the Life of Mohammed
Birth of Mohammed.
Death of Aminah, Mohammed’s mother.
Marriage to Khadija.
Beginning of “Call.”
Flight of followers to Ethiopia.
Death of Khadija.
Mohammed’s “Night Journey”
from Mecca to Jerusalem.
of Mohammed and his followers to Medina and the beginning of the
Battle of Badr:
defeated by the Muslims.
Battle of Uhud:
the Muslims defeated.
The Jewish tribe of al-Nadhir expelled.
“The War of the Ditch”—the
Maccan’s expedition against the Muslims in Medina. The attackers
were driven off.
The Treaty of Hudaybiyya:
truce with the Quraysh,
who recognize Mohammed’s right to proselytize without hindrance.
Mohammed sends letters and messengers to the Kings of
Persia, Yemen and Ethiopia and the Emperor Heraclius, inviting them
to accept Islam.
Truce broken by the Quraysh.
Mecca taken by Mohammed, the entire population converted and the
established as the religious center of Islam.
The “Year of Embassies”—Islam
accepted by the Arabian tribes.
Mohammed’s Farewell Pilgrimage to Mecca.
Death of Mohammed (three months after return to Mecca).
The Five Tenets of
There are five basic tenets of faith
in Islam. The first and foremost is “There is no God but Allah and
Mohammed is His messenger.” Others include the observance of
prayer, the payment of the alms-tax, pilgrimage to Mecca at least once
during the Muslim’s lifetime, and the fast during the month of Ramadan.
Sects in Islam
Sects and divisions within Islam are
derived primarily from questions of civil law, religious ritual, and
The majority of Muslims are Sunnis,
meaning they follow the “sunnah,” which follows a traditional respect for the Prophet, his companions, the
first four “rightly guided” caliphs (theocratic rulers), and the immediate
ruling Successors. Dermenghem comments:
the Qur’an and the sunnah may be added [roots] to make the rules more
specific[:] the ijma or
consensus of the scholars, the ra’y or personal interpretation of
a sound scholar, qiyas or analogical reasoning, and istihsan
or istislah, the consideration
of public welfare. The Sunnis are divided into four rites or
legal schools… which only differ in the relative importance which they
attach to each of these roots (ijma,
etc.), and in some details of ritual and of law.
The importance of the respect for the
line of succession of the first caliphs cannot be understated. It
marks the distinction between the Sunnis and the Shi’ite and Kharjite
The Shi’ites oppose the first three succeeding caliphs. Most
detested is ‘Umar, who is regarded as having usurped the rights of ‘Ali
and his eleven direct successors. The twelfth and last imam
is alleged to have disappeared, remains today in hiding, and will return
at the Last Day. For the Shi’ites, to know the imam of the
age or to have faith in the hidden imam assures a man of salvation—hence
the fanatical allegiance of Shi’ite Muslims to certain of their
ayatollahs or holy men. The teachings of the so-called “Twelver Shi’ites” became the official religion of Persia in the 16th century. Persia
is now modern day Iran.
One interesting Shi’ite sect, known as the Druz, claims to descend
directly from Fatimah, Mohammed’s daughter. Hakim,
one of the Fatimid caliphs, ultimately proclaimed himself God.
After his mysterious disappearance, Hakim’s disciples founded in the
Hauran area of Syria the community of the Druzes. In a manner
somewhat reminiscent of an Islamic equivalent of the Second Coming of
Christ, they await Hakim’s return to this day.
At the opposite end from the Shi’ites are the Kharjites. No longer
guided by an imam, they formed a community in Mzab which is today
guided by scholars. The Kharjites believe that succession belongs
to any man of upright character, and pure faith, even to a slave.
They do not believe in justification apart from works. Kharjites
accept only a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. They believe
that one who commits a capital sin ceases to be a believer and hold that
their scholars have the right to excommunicate the sinner from the faith.
Islam Around the World
Islam is now the religion of over two billion people. As a
religion, it is state-supported and protected in a number of countries
(especially in the Middle East); in the early 1990’s, King Fahd
of Saudia Arabia built a massive printing plant that continues to
subsidize the printing of nearly 30 million copies of the Qur’an each
Islam is becoming increasingly prevalent throughout America.
Hundreds of “Islamic centers” have spring up all across the country.
These centers are actually the equivalent of Christian churches or
Jewish synagogues. Members who attend the centers, many of whom are
converted from main-stream Christian churches or who are proselytized from
among the American public, are immersed in Islamic teaching; Arabic, the
original language of the Qur’an, is taught at many of these centers.
Muslim “imams” or “holy men” (the equivalent of Christian ministers
and teachers) have even offered prayers at the start of legislative
sessions in a number of states. Efforts have even been made to
allow Muslim prayers at the start of legislative sessions of Congress.