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Introduction to Islam

By Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay with adaptations by Khan Academy

Origins and the Life of Muhammad the Prophet

Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are three of the world’s great monotheistic faiths. They share many of the same holy sites, such as Jerusalem, and prophets, such as Abraham. Collectively, scholars refer to these three religions as the Abrahamic faiths, since it is believed that Abraham and his family played vital roles in the formation of these religions.
The Kaaba, granite masonry, covered with silk curtain and calligraphy in gold and silver-wrapped thread, pre-Islamic monument, rededicated by Muhammad in 631–32 C.E., multiple renovations, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (photo: marviikad, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Islam began with the Prophet Muhammad. Islam means "surrender" and its central idea is a surrendering to the will of God. Its central article of faith is that "There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger".
Followers of Islam are called Muslims. Muslims believe that they are following in the same tradition as the Judeo-Christian figures Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus who they believe were significant prophets before Muhammad.
Bifolium from the "Nurse's Qur'an" (Mushaf al-Hadina), c. 1019–20 C.E., ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on parchment, 44.5 x 60 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, provides very little detail about Muhammad’s life; however, the hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, which were largely compiled in the centuries following Muhammad’s death, provide a larger narrative for the events in his life (although there is significant debate in the Muslim world as to which Hadiths are accurate). 
Muhammad was born in 570 C.E. in Mecca, and his early life was unremarkable. He married a wealthy widow named Khadija who was 15 years older and his employer. Around 610 C.E., Muhammad had his first religious experience, where he was instructed to recite by the Angel Gabriel. After a period of introspection and self-doubt, Muhammad accepted his role as God’s prophet and began to preach word of the one God, or Allah in Arabic. His first convert was his wife.
Muhammad's divine recitations form the Qur'an and are organized into books (surahs) and verses (ayat). Because these revelations focused on a form of monotheism considered threatening to Mecca's ruling tribe (the Quraysh), which Muhammad was a part of, the early Muslims faced significant persecution. Eventually in 622, Muhammad and his followers fled Mecca for the city of Yathrib, which is known as Medina today, where his community was welcomed. This event is known as the Hijra, or emigration. 622, the year of the Hijra (A.H.), marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar, which is still in use today.
Between 625–630 C.E., there were a series of battles fought between the Meccans and Muhammad and the new Muslim community. Eventually, Muhammad was victorious and reentered Mecca in 630.
One of Muhammad's first actions was to purge the Kaaba of all of its idols (before this, the Kaaba was a major site of pilgrimage for the polytheistic religious traditions of the Arabian Peninsula and contained numerous idols of pagan gods). The Kaaba is believed to have been built by Abraham (or Ibrahim as he is known in Arabic) and his son, Ishmael. The Arabs claim descent from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar. The Kaaba then became the most important center for pilgrimage in Islam.
In 632, Muhammad died in Medina. Muslims believe that he was the final in a line of prophets, which included Moses, Abraham, and Jesus.

After Muhammad's Death

The century following Muhammad’s death was dominated by military conquest and expansion. Muhammad was succeeded by the four “rightly-guided” Caliphs (khalifa or successor in Arabic): Abu Bakr (632–34 C.E.), Umar (634–44 C.E.), Uthman (644–56 C.E.), and Ali (656–661 C.E.). The Qur'an is believed to have been codified during Uthman’s reign. The final caliph, Ali, was married to Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter and was murdered in 661. The death of Ali is a very important event; his followers, who believed that he should have succeeded Muhammad directly, became known as the Shi’a ("party" or "followers"), referring to the followers of Ali. Today, the Shi’ite community is composed of several different branches, and there are large Shia populations in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain. The Sunnis, who do not hold that Ali should have directly succeeded Muhammad, compose the largest branch of Islam; their adherents can be found across North Africa, the Middle East, as well as in Asia and Europe.
The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra), Umayyad, stone masonry, wooden roof, decorated with glazed ceramic tile, mosaics, and gilt aluminum and bronze dome, 691–92, with multiple renovations, patron the Caliph Abd al-Malik, Jerusalem (photo: Brian Jeffery Beggerly, CC BY 2.0)
During the seventh and early eighth centuries, the Arab armies conquered large swaths of territory in the Middle East, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and Central Asia, despite on-going civil wars in Arabia and the Middle East. Eventually, the Umayyad Dynasty emerged as the rulers, with Abd al-Malik completing the Dome of the Rock, one of the earliest surviving Islamic monuments, in 691/2 C.E. The Umayyads reigned until 749/50 C.E., when they were overthrown. The Abbasid Dynasty assumed the Caliphate and ruled large sections of the Islamic world. However, with the Abbasid Revolution, no one ruler would ever again control all of the Islamic lands. 

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user daniellac
    are there different branches of Islam? Is there a main message in Islam that is followed or does it vary? ( I am not trying to be offensive in any way, I just don't know anything about the religion and am curious :) )
    (20 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user iman
    it is written:
    "Muhammad's divine recitations form the Qu’ran; unlike the Bible or Hindu epics, it is organized into verses, known as ayat"
    but the bible also has ayat
    so am I wrong or is the text wrong ?
    (14 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Moises Lopez
    What does Alahu Akbar mean?
    (10 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user Rose .M.
    Who wrote the Qu'ran Book? Does anyone know who exactly?????
    (8 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user BlVe 15
      For your information, prophet Muhammad saw. COULD'NT WRITE AND READ! So, the Qur'an's is given by Allah swt. to prophet Muhammad saw. Because he cannot write, sometimes after prophet Muhammad saw. accept ayaat from Allah swt, his friends and followers write it. :)
      (9 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user parisiantour
    Would Muhammad or his community know of the Christians? Was Constantnople developed at this time. Did he say Jesus was a prophet or did that recognition come later. Thanks.
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Caitlin Bolzan
      Christians and Jews were called "People of the Book" or "People of the Scripture" because they believed in the same god and therefore similar faiths, but the Qur'an was the complete word of Allah, while Jews and Christians only had part of it. Christianity did exist at the time (Muhammad lived around 6 centuries after Jesus died, so yeah) but Jesus was considered another prophet by Muslims, not the Son of God.
      Constantinople did exist.
      Also I only know about Islam from books, history class and a few websites (I'm Christian) so I may not be the most reliable source.
      (14 votes)
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Grant Werner
    in islam why did they split into different groups
    (8 votes)
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  • leafers seedling style avatar for user Rajeshwari
    Did Muhammad start Islam or was it something which was pre-existing and was promoted by him? If Islam was started by Muhammed, then why can we classify names as Islamic names?
    (4 votes)
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    • leaf yellow style avatar for user Haitch02
      Islaam was the first religion and was called to by all Prophets and Messengers sent by God. It may have not been called "Islaam" but the core of the message was the same. There were also minor differences in obligations and prohibitions.
      However, books like the Bible and Torah was changed and altered until what they are today.

      God then sent Prophet Muhammad with the Koran as the last Prophet. The Koran has never changed and never will.
      (6 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user josh silva
    how much does mahammad's death effect modern day muslims.
    (2 votes)
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    • starky seedling style avatar for user Kimberly Lily Evans
      I really don't know how to start so don't judge me for my blunt beginning.
      What most people tend to forget is that Muhammed (S.A.W.) is also a human being. So death for all of Adam's sons is preordained. It doesn't exactly effect us in any way but there are some people who are so overwrought by his death that when they visit his grave some people start laying there and crying and beating themselves .
      The next thing us they start changing the religious beliefs and inventing and deleting some parts of the religious beliefs. And that is why Islam today us divided on petty reasons but all of them have the same fundamental beliefs.
      (6 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Kutili
    Why is Ali so different from the rest of the “rightly-guided” Caliphs? And why are there no rightly-guided Caliphs after him?
    (4 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Fahad Ahmed
      Those Caliphs who truly followed in the Prophet's foot steps are called 'The Rightly-Guided Caliphs' (Al-Khulafa-ur Rashidun in Arabic). They are the first four Caliphs: Abu Bakr, 'Umar, Uthman and Ali. All four were among thc earliest and closest Companions of the Prophet (peace be on him). They lived simple and righteous lives and strove hard for the religion of God. Their justice was impartial, their treatment of others was kind and merciful, and they were one with the people - the first among equals. After these four, the later Caliphs assumed the manners of kings and emperors and the true spirit of equality of ruler and ruled diminished to a considerable extent in the political life of Muslims.

      It should be clearly understood that the mission of Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him), and hence that of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, was not political, social or economic reform, although such reforms were a logical consequence of the success of this mission, nor the unity of a nation and the establishment of an empire, although the nation did unite and vast areas came under one administration, nor the spread of a civilization or culture, although many civilizations and cultures developed, but only to deliver the message of God to all the peoples of the world and to invite them to submit to Him, while being the foremost among those who submitted.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Abdel Karim El Jamali
    I am very thankful to Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis that she has done a wonderful job during searching of the art of islam that I am a muslim …. and I don’t have any problem with this article or essay but it minus the manners of our prophet how it look’s like and the originally of islam does it play any role of the terrorism in the world at general and what happened inside the arabe world specifically
    (6 votes)
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