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16. Who Started Islam: Abraham or the Arabs?
Chapter 4. Who were the Arabs that started Islam?

4.6 How did Arabs start Islam?

The rise of Islam in Arabia starting in the first half of the 7th century AD is complex and completely dependent on Islamic sources, which date to about 150 years after the death of Muhammad, with the Koran as the only exception. Let us look at some details.

4.6a) Muhammad in Mecca (610 to 622 AD): Muslims today believe that Arab Islam began when the Arab man Muhammad received the first Arabic words from "his Lord", which today are in the Koran. Many believe that these are in Sura al-'Alaq 96:1-5. After receiving more and more of such words from "his Lord", who later turned out to call himself "Allah", Muhammad started to recite these words before others. His wife Khadija was the first person to accept these words as divine and his nephew 'Ali was the first man to do so. In such words from Allah Muhammad was commanded to warn people from worshipping idols and instead only to worship Allah in prayer. As such a peaceful prophet in Mecca Muhammad only had several dozen followers, who were persecuted by the polytheistic Meccans, because they were afraid through this anti-idol preaching of Muhammad to lose their income from pilgrims, who came to worship the many idols and gods in and around Mecca. In this period the Arabic words that Muhammad claimed to receive from Allah included details from Jewish and Christian sources (Tawrat and Injil) and Muhammad hoped that these "People of the Book" would then accept his new faith and religion. Because of the increasing persecution in Mecca, Muhammad first sent his followers (called "companions" = sahaaba) as refugees to a Christian kingdom in Abyssinia, across the Red Sea from Arabia. But when they started to open up to the Christian message there, he ordered them back to Arabia. Finally, after both his wife and his uncle had died (they had given him a sort of clan-protection in those early years as a prophet), he and his followers (only around 80 persons at the time) had to leave Mecca in 622 AD to the town, where Muham­mad's mother had come from, and which today is called Medina.

4.6b) Muhammad in Medina (622 to 632 AD): In this town around 400 km north of Mecca, the father-town of Muhammad, a new phase in the beginning of Arab Islam started. Before moving to Medina, Muhammad had negotiated a contract or constitution for him to act as arbiter or mayor of the quarreling polytheistic and Jewish tribes, which inhabited this town. In it he regulated how life in a multi-religious community of Jews, polytheists and Muslims should be organized. The only requirement of the other groups for the benefit of him and his Muslims was that all would help defend them, if Muslims should be attacked. This date 622 AD of the move to Medina was chosen by the Muslims that started Arab Islam as the year one of Islam, because there Islam was no longer just a set of beliefs and religious duties, but also became a constitutional polity. Muhammad through appropriate Arabic words he received from Allah was able to forge the increasing community of his followers into first ambushing commandos and later into an army of warriors to fight against his Meccan enemies, who had persecuted him, while he still lived among them. Thus, Muhammad in addition to being a prophet became a war-waging statesman in Medina. Many of the Arabic words, which Muhammad received from Allah there contained legislation on how people have to live together under the rule of Islam. He managed to not only ward off attacks by the polytheistic Meccans, and to violently deal with the lack of support of the Jewish tribes in and around Medina, but later he went on to conquer other tribes and towns with his Arab followers (now also including "helpers" = ansaar). It is during these years that Muhammad produced Koran words, which Muslims believe to have come from Allah, in which Abraham and Ishmael were linked to Mecca and Islam. This way Muhammad had hopes that both Jews and Christians would embrace Islam, because both of them respected Abraham as a patriarch. By the year of his death in 632 AD the Arab man Muhammad had succeeded in subduing large portions of Arabia under the flag of Allah and his Islam, making Muhammad very rich and influential, able to have more than 10 wives and a dedicated army of mostly Arab Muslims (now also including "followers" = taabi'uun).

4.6c) The compilation of the Koran (632 to 653 AD): When Muhammad died, the Koran did not exist as a book. The Arabic words that Muhammad had received from Allah were primarily available in the memory of his companions from Mecca (most of whom had died fighting for Muhammad), of his helpers from Medina and of his followers from other parts of Arabia. And since after Muhammad's death the expansion of the realms of Islam continued unabated under the direction of his successors, the Caliphs, a problem arose. Disagreements started between Arab and non-Arab Muslims in different areas of the young empire of Islam as to what were the exact Arabic words, which Muhammad had received from Allah. Therefore, it became important to commit to writing the words believed to belong to the Koran. The first two Caliphs, Abu Bakr (the father of Aisha, whom Muhammad had married as an underage girl) and the pious 'Umar (father of Muhammad's wife Hafsa) failed to produce an unanimously accepted Koran. Only the third Caliph 'Uthman (644-656 AD, who married two daughters of Muhammad, Ruqayya and Umm Kulthum) succeeded in this task. Under the leadership of Zayd ibn Thabit' (one of the helpers of Muhammad = ansaar from Medina) an authoritative compilation of the words of the Koran was produced in 653 AD, of which five hand-written copies were made for use in Mecca, Medina (both in Arabia), Damascus (in Syria), as well as Kufa and Basra (both in Iraq). Not all early Arabs of Islam agreed that this Koran was complete. This is how the Koran became a book.

4.6d) The expansion of Arab Islam under the first Caliphs and the Umayyads (632 to 750 AD): In a breathtaking pace the lands dominated by Islam grew until around 750 AD. Under the first four Caliphs (632 to 661 AD), all of them Arabs, Islam conquered Palestine and Syria (by 638 AD), Egypt and Libya (by 647 AD), Iraq and Iran (by 643), Afghanistan and the Caucasus (by 653). Then, after Mu'awiyah (the son of Muhammad's most prominent opponent, Abu Sufyaan, who switched to Islam just before the conquest of Mecca in 630 AD) had assumed power and established his Umayyad dynasty, Islam subdued Tunisia (by 693 AD), Algeria and Morocco (by 699 AD), Spain (by 712 AD), as well as Uzbekistan and Pakistan (by 712 AD). Their march forward was stopped by European forces in the West (732 AD no victory of Muslims in the battle of Tours and Poitiers in France) as well as by Chinese forces of the Tang dynasty in the East (AD 751 standstill in the Battle of Talas in Kyrgyzstan). In about 90 years (622 to 712 AD) the Arabs who started Islam in western Arabia came to rule an empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Indus river in the East, and from the Indian Ocean in the South to the steppes of central Asia in the North. In the early stages of this Arab Muslim empire the administration was in Medina. But after the Umayyads took over in 661 AD, this administration moved to Damascus. The official languages of the administration were Greek and Syriac at first, endangering the Arabic root of Islam. However, under the rule of Abd al-Malik (fifth Umayyad Caliph, ruling from 685 to 705 AD) the bureaucracy was forced to adopt Arabic as the official language. This was implemented with brute force by e.g. the Wesir al-Hajjaj in Iraq. Only this way did the Islam, which was started by Arabs, succeed in warding off the danger of the Muslim empire being dominated by languages and cultures of people groups they came to dominate.

4.6e) The development of the Sharia under the Abbasids (750 to 850 AD): A violent revolution in 750 AD brought a new Arab dynasty to power in Iraq. The first Caliph, Abu al-'Abbas (in power 750-754 AD), called al-Saffah (the Slayer), had all possible successors of the Umayyad Caliphs butchered, and only one of them succeeded in fleeing to continue his dynasty in faraway Spain. Under the rule of the Arab Abbasids the power center of Islam moved from Syria (Damascus) to Iraq (Baghdad, founded in 762 AD). There the key Arabic books, which characterize Islam today, were compiled and written. Such literature was composed in the context of emerging schools of Sunni Sharia Law (madhhab): the mildly liberal Hanafites (founded by Abu Hanifa, who died in 767 AD), the more conservative Malikites (founded by Malik ibn Anas, who died in 791 AD) and Shafiites (founded by al-Shafii, who died in 821 AD) as well as the very conservative Hanbalites (founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who died in 855 AD). Toward the end of these developments in Muslim jurisprudence a mildly rationalistic form of Islam, the Mu'tazilites, was favored by the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad, and they were instrumental in persecuting the more conservative Muslims. Only under the rule of Caliph al-Mutawakkil were the Mu'tazilites removed from power around 850 AD and the conservative Sunni Muslims like Ahmad ibn Hanbal gained influence. This in turn led to a severe persecution of the mildly rationalistic Mu'tazilites, many of whom were killed. Since then Sunni Islam has upheld an Arab orthodoxy in the Muslim world, which in its extreme forms does not allow for any independent thinking in questions of Islam. All along these years the Shiite part of Islam was suppressed and persecuted. They also developed different schools of jurisprudence (Zaidi, Isma'ili and Ja'fari for example). Another development that began to emerge during the time of the Abbasids involved mystical groups, called Sufis in Islam, which by the Middle Ages had equally survived severe persecution and later became a major religious force in many parts of the Muslim word. So even though the center of power in the Muslim world stayed firmly in the hands of Arab Muslims, nevertheless the Islam, which these Arabs had started 250 year earlier was beginning to fall apart. This became more and more acute when the non-Arab nations conquered by the Arabs established their own non-Arab Muslim emirates and non-Arab Muslim kingdoms until in the middle ages the rule of the Arabs over the Muslim heartland was ended by conquests from central Asia (Turks and Mongols). Since then Arabs have never again ruled the whole Muslim world, even though it was them, who had started Islam around 610 AD.

4.6f) The standardization of the Koran (850 to 936 AD): Another aspect of this diversification (not to say deterioration) of monolithic Islam can be seen in the final fixation of the Koran. When the Koran was standardized in 653 AD and copies were sent to five military command centers in Arabia, Syria and Iraq, the Arabic system of writing was not yet complete. The earliest manuscripts of the Koran were written in a sort of Arabic shorthand and only used as a prop to help in the recitation of the full text, which reciters were expected to know by heart. But in time it became necessary to fix in detail how each written word of the Koran was to be recited. This is why first the Arabic consonants were distinguished with the help of diacritical marks and then the Arabic vowels were added above or below the Arabic consonants to determine how the words were to be recited. During this process two different systems were used. The older one (often using the Kufi script) used dashes for diacritical marks and large dots for vowels. The system, which is in use today (typically written in the Naskh script), uses small dots for diacritical marks and dashes for vowels. This process of standardizing the way Arabic is written, fixing how each letter and word in the Arabic Koran must be uttered, did not produce a unique text of the Koran. Rather different so-called "readings" of the Koran (qira'aat) became established: by the year 935 AD seven different readings were officially recognized (compiled by Abu Bakr Ibn Mujahid) and later (before 1045 AD) three more were accepted and still later four more became established. The result is that today orthodox Muslims do not have one unique Koran, but a total of 28 different versions of the Arabic Koran, because each one of these 14 readings is available in two variants. Most Korans in print today, however, follow only one single reading (that of 'Asim, who died in 745 AD, in the variety according to Hafs, who died in 796) representing the recitation tradition of Kufa in Iraq. But a professional reciter of the Koran must know all these different versions by heart and must be able to reproduce them in public recitations of the Koran.

4.6g) Result: Most Muslims today, whether Arab or not, believe that Abraham was a Muslim. However, if you take into consideration this breathtaking historical development, which Arab Muslims started, and which only became fixed by the 10th century AD, it is clear that Abraham did not start an Islam, which in any way came close to the Islam that Arabs produced. Abraham did not establish an empire, his Islam has not produced Muslim schools of law and his submission to Allah has not forged a global Muslim culture. This, however, was the outcome of the Islam, which Arabs have started. Therefore, Abraham's Islam, even by Muslim standards, could only have been a very preliminary type of Islam.

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