Historical Context

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The geography and cultural influences in Arabia during the 6th century a.d. had a significant influence on the beginning and development of the religion of Islam. Muhammad's early life was normal. When he was 40, he claimed to have a revelation from the angel Gabriel about worshiping the one "true" God, Allah. He receives further revelations that he records in what has become known as the Qur'an. Because of his revelation, Muhammad destroyed the family idols and then fled to Medina with a group of his supporters. There were significant military battles in which Muhammad and his followers defended themselves even though they were greatly outnumbered. Some of the Muslim mosques that were built have great religious and historical significance.


The Historical Context of Islam

I. Arabia in the Sixth Century

A. Inhabitants

B. Mecca and the Ka'ba

II. Muhammad

A. Early Life

B. Call to Public Ministry

C. Revelations

D. The Qur'an

E. Early Christian Influences

F. The Hegira (622)

1. Powerful Corporate Movement

2. Birth of a New Religion

3. Emergence of a New Political Authority

G. Battles

1. Badr (624)

2. Uhud (625)

3. Return to Mecca (630)

III. Mosques

A. The Prophet's Mosque

B. The Grand Mosque

C. The Prophet's Prayer Mosque

D. The Dome of the Rock


For more on The Historical Context of Islam, go to "Introduction to Islam" in the Leadership Education section of this site:

Lecture #1 - Introduction

Lecture #2 - Pre-Islamic Arabia

Lecture #3 - Muhammad: The Man - His Life and Influences, Part 1 and Part 2


Course: Essentials of Islam

Lecture: Historical Context

Welcome to this introductory course in Islam. This course will entail three main parts. First we will look in this focal section where we examine the context of Arabia in the sixth century A.D. We will also look as part of this whole context at the rise of Muhammad as a prophet and the origin of the Qur’an, and his position as a prophet and the founder of the religion known as Islam.

In the second part of the course we will examine the key teachings of Islam including what is known as the five pillars of Islam. In the final part of the course we will examine the Christian response to Islam. This will include an examination of the key differences between Christianity and Islam, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and also some questions that are particularly relevant today such as, is Islam a religion of peace? And is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ the same as the god of Muhammad? In other words, are Allah and God interchangeable terms or titles?

It is hoped that this course will provide a good overview of the religion of Islam as well as touch on a number of very important issues that we face today in light of September 11th and the increased emphasis on Islam and discussion about Islam in the popular media.

I. Arabia in the Sixth Century

Let’s begin with a discussion of Arabia in the sixth century A.D. I call Arabia in the sixth century the “land of traders and raiders.” This is really the nice way to summarize the heart of what is going in Arabia in the sixth century. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a place of Bedouin peoples who were trading with caravan traders that went up and connected with the silk route, which went all the way from Europe to China. The geography of Arabia is critical to understanding the whole rise of Islam. Arabia is a land enclosed on the north by the mountains of Asia Minor. On the south it is trapped by the Indian Ocean, on the east by the mountains of Persia, on the west by the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. It has been wisely said that geography is latent history; and the geography often determines history. Arabia is certainly a land which is isolated in many ways geographically and this reflects some of the challenges which we face in looking at how Islam both arose in Arabia, but also the knowledge of Christianity at this period in this part of the world.

A. Inhabitants

The inhabitants of Arabia prior to the birth of Muhammad were known, as they are to this day, as Arabs. They are bound together by a very loose tribal structure. The Arabian Peninsula is arid and the oasis and inhabitable regions can only support a very limited number of inhabitants. What little pasture there is can only support a few camels and a few hearty sheep. The only contact with the outside civilization was with these caravan routes which crossed Arabia and connected up with Syria, Egypt and Persia. Of course, remember even in the Bible how Joseph was sold as a slave to Egypt to a traveling caravan. This is very much a part of the eastern culture. The arid landscape and the sparse pasture made raiding these caravans very important and sometimes a vital part of their survival. These tribes would lie in wait until the caravan came by and attack and carry off the goods. The caravan routes provided important trade for the survival of the more settled tribes of Arabia; and the more settled Arabs who benefited from the caravan routes were dependent on the more nomadic Arabs to provide safe transport to their territories.

B. Mecca and the Ka’ba

The Arabs managed to work together with a very extensive set of treaties to carry on their life together. That particularly was important in the Arabian Peninsula because Mecca is a place where there was a very large oasis, and therefore it was a very important point along the caravan trade. Because its kind of a cosmopolitan basis, there were many temples and shrines there to many gods, particularly the nature gods from tribes all across the Arabian Peninsula.

The most important shrine in the city of Mecca was a cube-like building known as the Ka’ba. Inside the Ka’ba there was housed a very important stone known as the “black stone” as well as 360 other images or idols which stood around this black stone, each revered by pagan priests who received fees from various worshipers. It was like Athens or Mars Hill of the Arab world. Today the Muslims have a term for this time in their history, they call this the “Jehiliah, “ or “the time of ignorance.” Now the black stone is one of the most important of all of these objects because today in modern day Arabia this Ka’ba or cube-like building, still houses the black stone. All the other images were cast out, as we will see later on, in the development of Islamic history. Mecca is a very, very important place in the history of Islam; and the presence of the Ka’ba is very, very important to the history of Islam.

II. Muhammad

A. Early Life

Muhammad himself, we believe, was born in Arabia, specifically in Mecca. Muhammad’s family was a very important family, a powerful family. In part, their job was to guard these idols or images that were located in the Ka’ba. According to this, Muhammad was born in Mecca in the year 570 A.D., traditionally June 8, 570 A.D. Muhammad’s father, whose name was Abdullah, died before he was born and his mother died when he was only six years old. He was brought up by his grandfather and then later by his uncle, Abutalib. All of the members of the family were known as the Hashim family, the tribe known as Korash.

According to Islamic history, Muhammad had a very ordinary life and was not particularly exceptional in terms of his wealth or background. In one verse in the Qur’an his opponents accuse him – this is in chapter 43, verse 30 of the Qur’an. Why was this Qur’an not revealed to some mighty man from the two towns? The two towns reference Mecca and Medina. There is a parallel to this statement by Nathaniel, who said in the Bible, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” There was a feeling that there was nothing special about Muhammad’s family or his tribe which would have produced a person who became so important to the whole history of that region. Nevertheless, Muhammad was born.

Muhammad’s early life, according to all that we know, seems to be quite normal. As I said, he himself sacrificed to the deities just the way everybody else did. He participated in the pagan worship of his time. He had a son whom he named after one of the Meccan deities. In every way he seemed to be about typical of people of that time period.

At age 25 he married a woman named Kadisha, who was a widow and was 40 years old. This is a 25 year-old man marrying a 40 year-old woman and that is a bit unusual. She was a very rich widow and she owned several important caravans. Muhammad was in charge of her caravans and they eventually in due course got married. This is important, because now Muhammad has more access to wealth and his involvement in the caravan trade is particularly important because he was able to travel all over and meet a wide range of people and hear a lot of ideas. There are Zoroastrians, there are early Christians with a wide variety of theological backgrounds, and Jews; a lot of people he is meeting in the course of his travels. So, this is Muhammad’s early life as a man growing up.

Something happens to Muhammad in these early days that is very, very important in the whole history of Islam. He is married at 25 and as I said, he lived a fairly ordinary life in those early years. When he was 40 years old – this would be the year 610 – something amazing happens to Muhammad. Muhammad was meditating in some caves around Mecca. It was typical during this time – it was actually the ninth month of the year, the month of Ramadan – and during that month the tradition was to take time for retreat and reflection. Again, because of the raids on the caravans that were so brutal and ruthless, these tribes entered into agreement with one another and by treaty they would not raid anybody’s caravan during the ninth month; kind of a criminal code of honor, you might say. Even thieves would enter into agreements and would keep their word during that period of time. So, the ninth month was considered a sacred month. People would take time away for reflection and there would not be the dangers that you would normally associate with the caravan trade the rest of the year.

B. Call to Public Ministry

It was during the ninth month that Muhammad was doing this reflection in the caves of Mecca when suddenly, according to the Qur’an in the 74th chapter, the 2nd verse, he hears the expression, “Arise and warn.” This is his call to public ministry. According to the Qur’an, the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad in the cave and called him to rise up and warn the people of Arabia that they are facing damnation unless they turn from their idolatry and worship the one true god. The word for god in Arabic is the word “Allah.” Allah is still the word that is used for the supreme deity today in the Arabian Peninsula.

C. Revelations

Muhammad was convinced that he should go back and destroy his father’s idols and begin to preach about the one true god. Muhammad does this and creates quite a stir. Apparently his wife, Kadishia, was his first convert and soon thereafter some others in the immediate family followed him. But he had a lot of people who opposed him in these very, very early days, especially because the idea of promoting a single god and destroying these idols was particularly a threat to the Korash tribe, to which Muhammad belonged because they were the ones who were the guardians of the Ka’ba; and therefore they had loyalties which were in conflict with this idea. This is a remarkable parallel to Acts 19:25+ where Demetrius called together the craftsman and silversmith in Ephesus and called people to oppose Paul because it said that “our trade will lose it’s good name”. He also was concerned about the goddess Artemis’ reputation. But I think it is very clear that it was not so much her divine majesty he was worried about as his own pocketbook. There were a lot of financial reasons why Muhammad’s message was not appealing to these early Arabs, who first heard him call for one god.

However, this time in Muhammad’s life is the beginning of a series of revelations that continue from this year 610 all the way to the year 632. So we actually have a 22-year period where Muhammad receives regular revelations from Gabriel, which have become what is today known as the Qur’an.

D. The Qur’an

The Qur’an is made up of 114 chapters known as “Suras” and is divided into smaller sections which they call “Iahs.” Iahs roughly correspond to our word for “verse”. The word “Iah” means a pointer or a sign; and so these little pointers or signs or verses make up the 114 chapters of the Qur’an. This Qur’an is believed by Muslims to be the exact duplication of a heavenly transcript of the word of Allah located in heaven. Muhammad is believed to have been completely passive in the process. They do not believe that there is any parallel to and biblical discussion about the style of Paul or particular emphases in John’s writings, etc. This is a much stricter view of revelation which would correspond to what we call the “dictation theory.” Muhammad is merely a passive recipient of the message. He records it down and then later he announces it to the people, who are recipients of the message, the Arabs in the area.

E. Early Christian Influences

Muhammad tried unsuccessfully to forge various alliances with various groups who would protect him. He even fled across the Red Sea to Abyssinia, which is modern day Ethiopia, around the year 615 where 75 Muslims took refuge with the Christians. This is really important from a Christian point of view because here we have an opportunity for the Christians to make a very early assessment about the Islamic message. Abyssinia was ruled by a Christian king named Negus and he did in fact offer the Muslims protection. The Muslims made their presentation about the Islamic message. At that point, King Negus believed that the Islamic message was not that different from the Christian message, so there was a potential for bringing Islamic tribes into full-orbed Christian faith.

But one of the tragedies of this time period was that the Bible had never been translated into Arabic. This means there was no access to the actual documents of historic Christianity. Instead, the early Arabs were exposed to a wide range of heretical views of Christianity. There were historians on the Arabian Peninsula who did not have a good, clear Christology, who believed that the two persons, the divine and human persons, were not fully united in the incarnation. There were Monophysites who believed that the deity of Christ would have certainly obliterated any vestiges of his humanity, and therefore denied the true humanity of Christ.

There were serious problems with particularly the docetic or views of Christology that tend to overly emphasize his deity. This made it difficult for Muhammad to actually understand what the true Christian message, the historic Christian position was. We should not forget that Muhammad was born in 580. The official orthodox Christological position did not occur until 451 A.D. at the Council of Chalcidon when that ruling is relatively new. Therefore, many of the people who were Christians were not fully apprised of the Chalcidonian formula, which of course states that there are two natures, the divine and human nature, united fully into one person without compromise or contradiction.

In addition to the fact that there were Christians who were orthodox, but had not been fully apprised of the best way to articulate that, you have people who were clearly outside of Chalcidon in their theology, particularly the historians and the Monophysites, and also adoptionists who believe that Christ was adopted into the Godhead. There were a number of heretics that were present that were expelled from the Roman Empire and had fled down to Arabia for safety. Therefore, those who fled became bearers of a, shall we say, less than an orthodox view of Christology, if not fully heretical. So, Muhammad is not being exposed to orthodox Christianity.

In addition to his problems with the Christians and fully understanding our message, Muhammad had a very interesting relation with the Jews. The Jews were located throughout the major cities of the Arabian Peninsula, but particularly in a city known as Yosharib. Yosharib, which is today known as Medina, is a city north of Mecca and was at that time populated by a wide number of Jewish inhabitants. The Jews there, of course, were very upset by the idolatrous context of Arabia and they were very, very happy when they found out that Muhammad, a prophet, was preaching that there was only one true god. His message emphasized the importance of Abraham; it emphasized the oneness of God. He emphasized the corruption of idols. He accepts the ten commandments as the Word of God. He refers to the Jews as the Allah Ketab, which means “the people of the Book”. So this seems to be great news for the Jews, who had been suffering under an idolatrous Arabia. Muhammad offered not only to bring them this message, but to end their intertribal feuds, which had brought great problems and strife to the communities of Medina.

The Jews agreed with the Arabs that were there that had been fighting each other to exhaustion, to agree and enter into an agreement to allow Muhammad to have a safe refuge in the city of Yafrib. Muhammad had been opposed down in Mecca because of the families that were in charge of the idols, particularly the Ka’ba. He had found some success in Ethiopia and Abyssinia at the time. But there were serious problems that developed there, which caused him to flee and come back to Arabia.

F. The Hegira (622)

Therefore, Medina, or Yafrib, became an opportunity for Muhammad to find a place where his followers could take root and to prosper. Muhammad and his followers gathered together, left Mecca and went north to Medina. This becomes the origin of the Islamic era. It is known as the Hegira, which can be translated as “the exodus.” It took place in the year 622 A.D., so it is very normal today to hear Muslims talk about the date. They obviously do not reference their dates according to Christian dates after the birth of Christ; so they will generally give their dates as rather than A.D., A.H, after the Hegira. So for them, right now we are in the year 1422 A.H. because this is how they determine the Islamic calendar.

The Hegira is very, very important theologically for Muslims because it marks the beginning of the Islamic era. There are at least three reasons why this becomes a very important time for Islamic identity. First, it is this point where Muhammad’s individual visions which he received in Mecca become united into a powerful corporate movement. It is no longer just an individual who has a vision about a one true god. Now you see numbers of Arabs who are uniting together, saying “There is only one true god.”

It is also important because it is at this point we really have the birth of a new religion. Prior to this point the dividing line between Christians and between Jews and these new Arab Monotheists was relatively thin. But increasingly, from the time of Muhammad’s flight over Abyssinia until the time of the Hegira, which was roughly seven years, during that time there was increasing animosity between the Arabs and the Jews and Christians because increasingly there were points of theology which were considered to be unacceptable by the Christians and the Jews. Let me give you some examples. In the 12th chapter of the Qur’an Muhammad changes the Joseph story and he makes the story such that Joseph is not seduced by the wife of Potiphar. In the 9th chapter of the Qur’an Muhammad is bold enough to assert that the Jews believe that Ezra is the Son of God the way the Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God. There is no evidence that there are any Jews who gave Ezra this kind of exalted status; so they are putting words into the mouths of Jewish leaders and this created a lot of opposition from the Jews. The Christians also began to have serious problems with Muhammad’s renunciation of various Christian positions which they heard at the time.

The third and final reason why this becomes a very important time for the Muslims and why they date their entire calendar back to this period is, not only do you have the transition from individual visions to a corporate movement; not only do you have this transition to a distinct religion that is not Judaism or Christianity; but now you see emergence politically speaking of a new authority, which will allow the Arabian Empire to emerge. As I have already mentioned, prior to this time there was so much division in Arabia; these tribes were constantly fighting each other. It was a land of traders and raiders and it created fragmentation. And the whole of Arabia was held very loosely with tribal structure and tribal chiefs that entered into various pacts and agreements with other tribes. The emergence of Islam changes all of that; and now there is the possibility of the Arabs being united into a singular civilization, which of course is what occurs. This also corresponds to a period of decline in the West, leaving a huge void politically and in many ways culturally, which allowed the emergence of a very powerful Islamic civilization, which continues throughout the so-called “dark ages” in the western hemisphere. Not to get ahead of ourselves, at this point we are seeing the emergence of at least the possibility of that kind of authority and unification that was not possible prior to that point.

G. Battles

Muhammad relocates to Yachlib and they re-name the city the name it is now called, and that is Medina. The city of Medina means “the city of the prophet.” Muhammad unites it religiously, he unites it socially, he unites it politically and even militarily. The Jews continue to have increasing problems with Muhammad, even though they originally believed more optimistically that he would be a good ally for them. Eventually this results in a number of battles, when unfortunately a number of Jewish people were slaughtered.

There were several other battles which took place: The battle of Badr and the battle of Uhud, which become very important battles in the history of Islam as the tribes from Mecca tried to come up and stomp out this early Muslim movement. The battle of Badr took place in 624 and was particularly important because it was a battle where they faced unbelievable odds. According to tradition there were 319 Muslims fighting over 1,000 Meccan soldiers . But, according to the Muslim tradition, the Muslims were superior in their fighting skills and they defeated the Meccans; and it was a clear example of Allah fighting on behalf of his people. This battle was known, even in those days, as “the mother of all battles.” Now that is important because, as you know, in the modern period, figures like Sadam Hussein and others have invoked this language, “the mother of all battles,” which was a term not widely known in the West, to refer to the conflict between Iraq and the western powers; and of course, because Iraq was so heavily outnumbered in the Gulf War, it was very appropriate for Hussein to call it “the mother of all battles”. What he meant by that was that a small number of Iraqis with the help of Allah, because they had righteousness on their side, would defeat the evil western powers and throw them out of the gulf. This became an important paradigm which has continually been invoked in the modern day.

The other battle that is also important, especially in light of September 11th, becomes the second major battle, was in 625, known as the battle of Uhud. The battle of Uhud is particularly important because it takes place about a year after the battle of Badr; this would be about the third year after the Hegira. In many ways it is a repeat of the earlier battle, in that you have Meccan soldiers from mainly the Korash family, who come up and confront Muhammad outside of Medina. Newly emerging Muslims are again heavily outnumbered. They went out to fight, but this time they were defeated and even Muhammad himself was badly wounded. But Muhammad was able to turn this defeat into a victory because he said that the reason that they were defeated was not because of Allah’s inability to help them, but because of the lack of faith and the need for spiritual purity in the lives of the fighters.

He also called at this time for Muslims to learn the value of martyrdom. Therefore, this battle has become the great paradigm for the importance of martyrdom in the Islamic community. Even in modern days, as we have seen so tragically on September 11th, many Muslims have been prepared to give their lives for the cause of Islam. Then of course, on a regular basis over the last number of years, we have seen this take place in Palestine, especially on the West Bank and on the Golan Heights and other areas of conflict where young Arabs have blown themselves up, even to kill a small number of Jews.

You wonder in the West why anybody would do this; but it is part of very ancient conceptions which go back to 3 A.H., the origin of the Islamic era, the battle of Uhud in 625 A.D. our time because there you have a very important call by Muhammad on the value of martyrdom. So, this is the way it has developed.

Finally, a few years later Muhammad finally gathers enough support and he decides that he will take initiative and march down and have a major battle, again “the mother of all battles” to fight against Mecca and claim it for Allah. Muhammad finally, in the year 630 A.D., returns to Mecca with all of his forces, expecting a major battle. But when he gets to Mecca this time, a complete shock to all the Muslims, not a single person was killed. All their swords were laid down. Muhammad took this as a great sign from Allah and he granted immunity to all the former enemies, and Muhammad took the city. He did not destroy the Ka’ba, but encircled it seven times, paid homage to the black stone because that black stone was believed to have been a symbol of monotheism. It was believed by the Arabs to have been placed there by Abraham himself, the father of monotheism. They believed that Muhammad traveled down with his son Ishmael and helped construct the altar upon which they sacrificed to the one true god, then they laid the black stone as a stone to monotheism. Muhammad decided to keep the black stone as a symbol of the one true god and then destroy, one by one, the remaining 360 idols in the Ka’ba. This is kind of a “cleansing of the temple,” as it were, in the Islamic tradition. Spiritually it meant a renunciation of idolatry, the declaration of true monotheism. But certainly culturally it meant the renunciation of the old, divided tribalism and the emergence of a new united civilization.

So, this becomes a very important point in the history of Islam. This is the background of the rise of Islam from the birth of Muhammad in the year 570 A.D., his first revelations in 610, his re-taking of Mecca and the emergence of Islamic community. Muhammad continues to receive revelations in Mecca for two more years until the year 632, when Muhammad dies; and, again, on that date, also believed to be June 8th in the eleventh year after the Hegira.

III. Mosques

A. The Prophet’s Mosque

Muhammad was buried in Medina because it was the first city to provide refuge and of course is known as “the city of the prophet.” Thus, it is called “the prophet’s mosque” and is the second most sacred mosque in the world. While we are on that subject, many Christians will often ask about the relationship of this mosque to the Dome of the Rock In Jerusalem, which of course has become the flash point.

B. The Grand Mosque

Just to be clear, the most sacred mosque in the entire world is known as the “Grand Mosque.” This is the one in Mecca which houses the Ka’ba and the black stone. It is this point, as we will see later, where every Muslim will face when they pray. It is this one place where all Muslims go on pilgrimage. The Grand Mosque in Mecca is the most sacred mosque in the history and in all of the thinking of Muslims around the world.

C. The Prophet’s Prayer Mosque

The second is the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina where he is buried. There is also a third mosque which is also in Arabia, called the Prophet’s Prayer Mosque, which is supposedly the first place the prophet prayed after the Hegira, on his way from Mecca to Yacharib. Therefore, that becomes the third most important mosque.

D. The Dome of the Rock

The fourth most sacred mosque in the world is in fact, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This is because Muhammad had several times where he made a very famous journey known as the “night journey” where he was transported from Mecca to Jerusalem spiritually to a sacred rock in Jerusalem. The sacred rock is believed to be the rock upon which the temple was built; also believed to be the spot where Abraham, according to Muslims, sacrificed Ishmael, was about to sacrifice him before the ram was provided. The Jewish tradition of course, is that is where Abraham placed Isaac on the wood. Nevertheless, this spot, this rock where Abraham and Isaac or Ishmael had the famous encounter, is where you have the ancient temple of Jerusalem. This was the place, Muslims believe, that Muhammad ascended into heaven and received various revelations directly in the presence of Allah through the angel Gabriel. Therefore,, it is a very, very important mosque and it is considered sacred. It is the most sacred mosque outside the immediate area of Arabia.

That is a brief introduction into the life and rise of Muhammad as the prophet of Islam.


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1 Essentials of Islam - Quiz 1- Historical Context of Islam

This quiz covers the material in Essentials of Islam, Lesson 1 - Historical Context of Islam


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