Part 1: Muslim Backgrounds – Topic 1: Muhammad and His Times
For Americans and much of the world, September 11, 2001 is a day never to be forgotten. As no previous event, including the attack on Pearl Harbor, 9-11 brought home the reality that terrorism can—and, indeed, has—come to mainland America. It has also thrust into national consciousness the reality of a world religion that in the past has often been ignored and overlooked by much of the Western world. That religion is Islam.
It may surprise many to learn that Islam has a long-standing relationship with lands where Christianity flourishes. In fact, for almost fourteen centuries, the Christian-Muslim encounter has formed the center of much of world history. The “war on terrorism” may ebb and flow, but the presence of Islam remains an ongoing challenge to Christians. With one and a quarter billion followers, Islam today is second in numbers only to the combined branches of Christianity, which total about two billion. Together, the two religions account for over three billion followers, more than half the world’s population.
Just how do these two faiths fit together? Are they diametrically opposed? Many would tell us that Christianity and Islam are both saying pretty much the same thing and that, when all is said and done, we worship the same God. We will examine the issues not on the basis of popular opinion or that of historians, politicians, and other authorities. Rather, we will look at Islam in the light of God’s Word, the Bible.
Our study consists of three parts. In the first part, we will gain some necessary background information on the Muslim religion, tracing its history and worldwide expansion. In the second part, we will consider some of the basic teachings and practices of Islam. In the third part, we will compare Islam with the Christian faith, focusing on applying God’s law and gospel to Muslims and how we can share the love of Christ with Muslim friends and neighbors.
The Bible speaks of how the name of Jesus “is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:9,10). When it comes to naming children, however, it is said that throughout the world the most popular name that parents give to sons is the name Muhammad. Who was this man, whose name and religion have spread around the globe? While much of Muhammad’s life is shrouded in mystery, enough is known to get a picture of the man.
Seventh Century Arabia
To the southeast of the Holy Land lies the land of Arabia. It is commonly held that many of the Arabs trace their ancestry back to Ishmael, the oldest son of Abraham (in Arabic, Ibrahim). The Bible’s listing of Ishmael’s sons in Genesis 25 supports this, as it includes a number of Arab names. The Arabs and Jews are related linguistically as well as physically; both Hebrew and Arabic are Semitic languages, as evidenced in numerous related words, such as the word for peace: shalom in Hebrew and salaam in Arabic.
At the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, about A. D. 570, two powerful empires lay to the north of the Arabian Peninsula. To the northwest was the Christian Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople, now Istanbul. To the northeast was the Sassanian or Persian Empire, whose religion of Zoroastrianism spoke of an ongoing battle between light and darkness, good and evil. The Byzantines and Sassanians were constantly at war, weakening one another and unknowingly paving the way for their fall.
Religion in Arabia
Most of the people of Arabia were polytheists; that is, they worshiped many different gods. Pilgrims made an annual journey to the pagan shrine in Mecca the largest city in Arabia. There they visited the Ka’abah, a stone edifice said to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. This structure housed the venerated Black Stone (probably a meteorite) and some 360 idols. Among the gods of Arabia was the high god known as Allah, as well as the three goddesses of Mecca: Manat, Allat, and Al-Uzza. Just as there were hundreds of deities, so there were hundreds of tribes, each with its own god.
When Muhammad was born in Mecca, about the year 570, Arabia was ripe for change. Although polytheism was still the chief religion of this tribal society, it had lost its grip on many of the people. The rise of the Hanifs attests to this; these were people who rejected polytheism and believed in one supreme God. Among those who believed in one God, were the Jewish tribes, which had considerable power in Arabia.
Scattered within Arabia, Christians did not wield that sort of physical might. Nevertheless, the one million square mile Arabian Peninsula was ringed with Christian influences. Christian populations dominated Syria to the north and Abyssinia in Africa to the west, while they had made inroads in Yemen in southern Arabia and in Persia to the northeast. Arabs were also familiar with the lonely dwellings of monks in the deserts.
By the time of Muhammad, the Bible had been translated into Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Latin, Gothic, and other languages. The earliest Arabic translation, however, did not come until about 720, almost a hundred years after Muhammad’s death. Numerous non-canonical writings, most of them post-dating the Bible, were also in circulation. These were not part of the inspired Scriptures. Many of the concepts of Christianity that Muhammad passed on to his followers were either mistaken ideas about the Bible or heretical views that were not in the 66 inspired, canonical books of the Bible.
There are three basic sources for the life of Muhammad. The first is the Qur’an, which records Muhammad’s words to his followers, but has little biographical material.
The second source consists of the biographies. The earliest biography of Muhammad comes from Muhammad ibn Ishaq, who wrote about 120 years after the Prophet’s death. This gap between Muhammad and his biographers is striking when we compare it with the four biographers of Jesus, the Gospel writers Matthew Mark, Luke, and John. Every one of them was a contemporary of Jesus; in fact, two of them were among his twelve disciples. Their writing was finished within the first generation of Christians.
The Hadiths comprise the third source of information about Muhammad. These are the traditions that sprang up about Muhammad after his death.
Muhammad’s Early Life
Little is known of the Prophet’s early years. He was born around the year 570 to the ruling tribe in Mecca, the Quraysh. As a child he was orphaned and raised by an uncle, Abu Talib. Muhammad spent several years among the Bedouins in the desert, where he became involved in tending sheep and goats in the hills and valleys around Mecca. There he developed a love for the rich Arabic language that was the Bedouins’ proudest art.
The young Muhammad traveled with trade caravans. No doubt he came into contact with Christians and Jews at this time. At the age of twenty-five he began working for a woman named Khadija, who enlisted him to take charge of a caravan of hers which was to go to Syria. A widow fifteen years older than Muhammad, Khadija took a liking to him and proposed marriage, a proposal he accepted.
The Origin of Islam
Although he remained in the caravan business for several years, Muhammad was now able to devote more time to meditation and reflection. “Every year,” says Ibn Ishaq, “the apostle of Allah spent a month praying at [Mount] Hira during the month of Ramadan.”
In the year 610, while engaged in meditation in a desert cave in Hira near Mecca, Muhammad received what is referred to as “the call.” He heard a voice telling him, “Read!” Muhammad responded, “I cannot read.” Upon the third repetition of this exchange, he said, “What can I read?” The answer was the beginning of revelations that were to form the Qur’an, which means “the reading”:
- Read: In the name of thy Lord Who created, created man from a clot.
Read: And it is thy Lord the most bountiful, who taught by the pen,
Taught man that which he knew not. (Sura 96:1-4)
Muhammad’s faithful wife Khadija accepted his revelation and became his first and most loyal convert. When her troubled husband returned home and told of his experience, she said, “Rejoice, . . . you will be the Prophet of this People.” In contrast to the polytheism of most Arabs, Muhammad began to teach a strict monotheism, devoted to the deity Allah. The name of this new religion became Islam, which means “submission” (to the will of Allah) and his followers became known as Muslims, “those who submit.”
For three years, Muhammad shared his messages in private with people close to him. After that he went public. Not everyone in Mecca was receptive to Muhammad’s revelations, which he claimed came from the angel Gabriel. Some of the fiercest opposition to Muhammad developed among the wealthy Umayyah clan, which was another branch of his own tribe, the Quraysh. Initially opposition came in the form of ridicule, sneers, and sarcasm. As the revelations continued and the little band of followers grew, the reaction did too. Some of the lowlier Muslims were even beaten. In 615 Muhammad sent most of his followers—eighty-three of them—to the largely Christian country of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) for refuge.
When Muhammad was fifty years old, his beloved wife Khadija died. As long as she was alive, he took no other wives. Two months after her death, he married a second time. By the end of his life, he had married a total of twelve women.
In 622, three years after Khadija died, the Prophet left Mecca and emigrated to the oasis city of Yathrib (now known as Medina), about 250 miles north of Mecca. This migration is the famous Hijirah that marks the beginning of the Islamic dating system.
At Medina Muhammad was able to unite two large tribes that had been fighting each other. This diplomacy was successful and thus consolidated eighty percent of Medina behind Muhammad. It also marked the beginning of the concept of umma, or community that crossed bloodlines and brought people together on the basis of religion.
During the first year in their new city, the Muslims built a mosque, the place of worship, as well as houses for themselves. Muhammad also took a third wife, Aisha, who was the daughter of his best friend Abu Bakr and to whom he had had been engaged since she was six years old. At the time of their marriage, she was nine.
Muhammad’s followers began to intercept caravans as a means of bringing pressure on his enemies in Mecca. At the battle of Badr, Muhammad with about 300 followers attacked a caravan headed to Mecca. In defeating a force of 1000 men, Muhammad gained his first military victory. When the head of the enemy leader was thrown at Muhammad’s feet, he is said to have declared, “It is more acceptable to me than the choicest camel in Arabia.” Badr was an immense turning point in Muslim history. Although he met with some setbacks, Muhammad continued to increase in power.
Among his victories was the capture and near-extermination of the Jewish banu-Qurayzah tribe, which made the mistake of siding with the Prophet’s Meccan enemies. In the market place of Medina, the Muslims decapitated some 700 hundred men of this tribe, a process that lasted into the night, as “the last to die were beheaded by torchlight.”
One of the most famous stories from Muhammad’s life is that of his “night journey.” The report is based on one verse from the Qur’an: “Glorified be He Who carried His servant by night from the Inviolable Place of Worship [Mecca] to the Far Distant Place of Worship [Jerusalem]” (Sura 17:1). Tradition has added the detail that the prophet journeyed through the air on the winged horse al-Buraq. From Jerusalem Muhammad, accompanied by the angel Gabriel, is believed to have ascended (the miraj) through seven heavens into God’s presence (Sura 53:13-8). Then he returned to Arabia, all within one night (some say within a knock on the door of his house)! Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock is said to mark the site, making it the most important Muslim place next to Mecca and Medina. The Dome stands on Mt. Moriah, where the Jewish temple once stood.
By the year 629, Muhammad’s power was such that he was able to return to Mecca and take it unopposed. He proceeded to destroy the idols of the Ka’abah, and the inhabitants of Mecca embraced Islam. Having established himself as master of most of Arabia and unified its tribes under Islam, the Prophet died in Medina in the year 632.
Further reading: Speaking The Truth In Love To Muslims (pages 1-19)
(discussion questions: pages 179-191)