Historical Context for the Qur'an
Islam arose in the Seventh Century C.E. in the Arabian Peninsula. Settled agriculturalists stretched across the countryside of what is now Saudi Arabia, while merchants anchored its ports. Across this territory zigzagged nomadic tribes devoted to polytheistic religions. With movement as a way of life, the region lacked a source of centralized authority. Islam introduced both monotheistic religion and a core set of laws and ethics, all encapsulated in the Qur’an.
The Qur’an’s prophet, Muhammad, was born in Mecca, a city on the western side of the peninsula near the Red Sea, around the year 570 C.E. Muhammad was orphaned at a young age. His father died before his birth, his mother while he remained a child. His grandfather and uncle raised him. They hailed from the Quarish, the leading Meccan tribe, but their particular branch had fallen into poverty. As a young man, Muhammad was sent out to work. He served as the business manager for a woman named Khadija, a wealthy widow. Khadija had inherited a vast fortune from her father, a trader. Khadija herself did not venture out to trade—arduous journeys on camels across the desert in caravan packs—but sent in her place hired men who worked on commission. Khadija confided in trusted agents that she desired someone to oversee the activities of these hired hands. Several recommended Muhammad, her distant cousin. Though only twenty-five years old to Khadija’s forty years, Muhammad had earned the honorifics Al-Sadiq (the truthful) and Al-Amin (the trustworthy). Muhammad proved himself a quick study and a skilled manager. He returned to Mecca after his first trip away with twice as much profit as Khadija had anticipated. Khadija and Muhammad soon married.
In accordance with common practice of the period, Muhammad frequently sought restorative retreats into the nearby mountains. On one of these Muhammad had a vision. The angel Gabriel visited him, and commanded him to recite. Muhammad did, and this first recitation forms Sura 96 of the Qur’an. The experience perturbed Muhammad. As tradition has it, his vision terrified him, and he questioned his sanity. He returned to Mecca and recounted the event to his family and friends. His wife and inner circle of confidants assured him of his soundness, and his cousin Ali and friends Abu Bakar and Uthman in particular urged him to share his experiences. Around 613, he began to preach a monotheistic message in the streets of Mecca. He was forty years old.
There Muhammad faced derision and persecution by the dominant Quarish clan, who resented the challenge to their authority. In 619 his wife and uncle died, rendering his position yet more precarious. Some sects of Islam report that Muhammad tried to pacify the Quarish by describing a vision that allowed worship of traditional Meccan deities. He later retracted this statement, blaming Satan for putting these words into his mind (the “Satanic Verses”). He soon began to seek support outside of Mecca. His chief communicants lived 250 miles north in Media, a town populated partly by émigré Jews. In 622 he moved with a core of followers to Medina in the Hijira (flight). This act helped lend his movement a political role and communal identity. Medina afforded Muhammad contact with Christians and Jews. In Medina he began to lead his group in prayer bowed toward Jerusalem. Contact with these other groups solidified his own group’s identity. He shifted the direction of his prayer to Mecca.
Muhammad began to ambush the caravans of Meccan traders in 624. While the Meccans retaliated with an army, Muhammad prevailed in key victories—many of which are detailed in the Qur’an. He moved on to Syria, where his tactics won him the support of Bedouin tribesmen. He marched back into Mecca in 630, the leader of a united Arabian peninsula—a mantle he enjoyed for two years until dying in 632.
Muhammad’s death triggered a competition amongst his successors for the title of leader of the Muslim community. Abu Bakar, a prominent follower, succeeded him in 632, becoming the first caliph. Bakar’s death in 634 led to the ascension of Umar, followed by Uthman ibn al-Affan and then Ali ibn Abi Talib. These first four caliphs, the “Rightly Guided Caliphs,” extended Muslim rule deep into Persian and Byzantine territories. Yet disputes over religious and political authority led to a schism in Islam. A majority accepted the legitimacy of the rule of all the Caliphs. They called themselves Sunnis (followers of Muhammad). A minority accepted only the legitimacy of the Ali, the fourth Caliph. They called themselves Shi’a (followers of Ali).
An Islamic Golden Age followed from 750-1258. Centered in the vibrant city of Baghdad, Islamic law was codified alongside the development of the Arab world. The Arabian peninsula gradually transformed. An agricultural revolution introduced crops from the far east, mechanization increased surpluses and created newly arable land, and population increases followed. Pushed forward by both trade and proselytizing, the Islamic world grew to encompass North Africa, parts of Central Europe, and the Indian subcontinent. Christian leaders to the west began to view the Muslim world as a threat. The Reconquista pushed Muslims out of the Iberian peninsula in the west, and the Mongolian invasion of Baghdad in 1258 limited influence in the East. In the centuries after, the Ottoman and Mughal empires remained the central seats of Muslim political power and religious authority. Today Islam is the world’s second largest religion after Christianity, counting about one quarter of the world’s population, the majority of whom live outside of the Middle East.
Written by Megan K. Doherty, Department of History, Columbia University
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