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READ: Islam

Prophet Muhammad founded the Islamic faith in the seventh century. A hundred years later, it was a widespread faith with a core set of values and practices, but that had also adapted to local culture in many different regions. Today there are 1.8 billion Muslims connected in a network of belief and community.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Why were Muhammad and his successors so successful at spreading Islam?
  2. What are the Five Pillars of Islam?
  3. How did the umma split early in Islam’s history?
  4. What were the central practices of Sufism?
  5. How did early Islamic society view women?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. You’ve now read about four (five, counting Buddhism) different portable belief systems. Islam is the youngest of the five religions, by several centuries. Is the Islamic concept of umma something new in the history of communities? Why or why not?
  2. Like Christianity, Islam has spread all over the world to billions of people. What role do you think networks played in this spread? Do you think Islam would have spread as far and as fast if it had emerged centuries earlier?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.


Painted depiction of the Hajj, or a pilgrimage. The scene shows of a large group of people walking by the sea. They carry many bags and are traveling with camels.
By Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Prophet Muhammad founded the Islamic faith in the seventh century. A hundred years later, it was a widespread faith with a core set of values and practices, but that had also adapted to local culture in many different regions. Today there are 1.8 billion Muslims connected in a network of belief and community.


Islam was founded by the religious reformer and prophet Muhammad (ca. 570-632 CE). He was born in Arabia, became a merchant, and married a wealthy widow, Khadija. A pious man, when he was about forty he began to experience religious visions instructing him to preach, which continued for the rest of his life. Muhammad described his revelations in a stylized and often rhyming prose as his Qur'an, or "recitation." His followers memorized his words and some wrote them down. Shortly after the Prophet's death, memorized and written materials were collected and organized into an official standard version. Muslims regard the Qur'an as the direct words of God to his Prophet Muhammad and it is therefore especially revered. (When Muslims around the world use translations of the Qur'an, they do so alongside the original Arabic, the language of Muhammad's revelations.)
Picture of a book, held open in a museum display case, featuring Arabic script
This eleventh-century Qur’an, now in the British Museum, was designed for reading aloud, which was and is an important part of Muslim worship. The small marks indicate proper pronunciation and pauses. By LordHarris, CC BY-SA 3.0
Muhammad's visions ordered him to preach a message of a single God, which he began to do in his hometown of Mecca. He gathered followers, but also provoked resistance. In 622 he migrated with his followers to Medina, an event termed the hijra that marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. At Medina, Muhammad was more successful, gaining converts and forming the first umma, a word meaning "those who comply with God's will." This community united his followers from different tribes and set religious ties above clan loyalty. He returned to Mecca at the head of a large army. He soon united the nomads of the desert and the merchants of the cities into an even larger umma of Muslims. By the time Muhammad died in 632, Muslim forces had conquered all of the Arabian peninsula. The religion itself came to be called Islam, which means "submission to God." Mecca became its most holy city.

Religious ideas

The political authority of Muslim rulers was spread by military victories, but the religious practices and ideas of Islam proved attractive to people both inside and outside Muslim states, partly because of the straightforward nature of its doctrines, and many converted. The strictly monotheistic theology outlined in the Qur'an has only a few central teachings: Allah, the Arabic word for God, is all-powerful and all-knowing. Muhammad, Allah's prophet, preached his word and carried his message. All Muslims had the obligation of jihad (literally, "self-exertion"), to strive to submit to God, spread God's rule, and lead a virtuous life. According to the Muslim shari'a, or sacred law, five practices—the profession of faith in God and in Muhammad as God's prophet, regular prayer at home or in mosques, fasting during the sacred month of Ramadan, giving alms (charity) to the poor, and a pilgrimage to Mecca, if possible—constitute what became known as the Five Pillars of Islam. In addition, the Qur'an forbids alcoholic beverages and gambling, as well as a number of foods, such as pork.
A birds-eye photo shows a black stone building surrounded by millions of people. There are so many people that it is difficult to identify them as such; they appear like little dots surrounding the building.
The Ka’aba, the black stone building at the center of the most important mosque in Mecca, is the holiest site in Islam. Today more than 2 million visitors come to Mecca every year during the five-day period of pilgrimage. By Adli Wahid, CC BY-SA 4.0
Muhammad called for unity within the umma, but shortly after his death his followers split over who was his proper successor, resulting in assassinations and civil war. This dispute created a permanent division within Islam between a larger group known as Sunnis and a smaller group known as Shi'a, which sometimes erupted into violence. This split did not halt the expansion of Islam. As the Dar-al-Islam—the "abode of Islam"—grew, laws and practices that had been developed in the Arabian peninsula mixed with existing traditions and new teachings emerged. Especially in cities such as Baghdad and Córdoba, creative thinkers and scholars from many different backgrounds built on Greek, Persian, and Indian knowledge, translating works into and out of Arabic and writing new works.
The eighth century saw the beginning of a mystical movement within Islam known as Sufism, which emphasized personal spiritual experience. Sufis taught that divine revelation could come not only to scholars studying the Qur'an, but also to certain holy individuals who could fully lose themselves and unite with God. This did not become a separate branch, because most Sufis taught that those who gained knowledge of God through mysticism still had to follow the Qur'an and obey the shari'a. Sufis were often wandering ascetics, venerated for their wisdom and austere lifestyle, and some were poets. Many people came to regard them as saints, made pilgrimages to shrines dedicated to them, and engaged in distinctive rituals, often involving music, dance, or the recitation of sacred texts. Learned theologians sometimes objected to these rituals, arguing that they led people away from the essentials of Islam, but they were very popular.

Society and family life

The Qur'an and other sacred texts of Islam recommend marriage for everyone, and approve of heterosexual sex within marriage for both procreation and pleasure. As in Judaism, most teachers, judges, and religious leaders in Muslim societies were married men. Polygyny (when a man has more than one wife) was common in Arabian society before Muhammad, though it was generally limited to wealthier families. The Qur'an restricted the number of wives a man could have to four, and prescribed that he treat them equitably. As elsewhere, marriages in Muslim societies were generally arranged by the family. The production of children—especially sons—was viewed as essential, with rituals and prayers devised to help assure the procreation and survival of offspring.
The Qur'an holds men and women to be fully equal in God's eyes. Both are capable of going to heaven and responsible to carry out the duties of believers for themselves. But it makes clear distinctions between men and women, allowing men to have up to four wives and setting a daughter's share of inheritance at half that of a son's. Though women played a major role in the early development of Islam, after the first generation the seclusion of women became more common in the Muslim heartland. Men were to fulfill their religious obligations publicly, at mosques and other communal gatherings, and women in the home, though women generally had access to a separate section of the mosque. Muslim law did allow women more rights to property than was common in other contemporary law codes, however, and wealthy Muslim women used their money to establish schools, shrines, hospitals, and mosques.
Islamic culture was urban and commercial and gave merchants considerable respect. Muslim merchants developed a number of business practices that would later spread widely, including the sakk (the Arabic word that is the root of the English check), an order to a banker to pay money held on account to a third party.

Political developments and the spread of Islam

During the century after Muhammad's death, Muslim rule expanded from the Iberian peninsula in the west to Central Asia and the Indus River in the east, along the trade routes that had long facilitated the movement of people and ideas. The unified Muslim state, called the caliphate, broke apart. Regional dynasties established their own Muslim states in Spain, North Africa, Egypt, and elsewhere, which themselves fought with one another and saw ruling families rise and fall. During the ninth and tenth centuries, Turkic peoples in the steppes of Western and Central Asia converted to Islam, and in the thirteenth century many Mongols did as well. Merchants and teachers carried Islam to West Africa on the camel caravan routes that crossed the Sahara, and to the East African Swahili (Arabic for "people of the coast") coast and Southeast Asia on the ships that criss-crossed the Indian Ocean. Intermarriage between Muslim traders from distant lands and local women was often essential to its growth, with women providing access to power through their kin networks. People were attracted by Islam's spiritual and moral teachings, approval of trade, and global connections. Islam also appealed to many rulers for a combination of religious, political, and commercial reasons.
When people at any social level converted, they often blended in their existing religious ideas and rituals. They passed these on to their children, and very diverse patterns of Islamic practices, rituals, and norms of behavior developed. For example, in Arabia, Persia, and South Asia, women's presence in public was restricted, but in Western Africa, Southeast Asia, and the central Asian steppes, women often worked, socialized, and traveled independently. Male merchants or scholars visiting from areas where women's activities were more restricted were shocked at these very different customs, just as they were at other aspects of Islamic practice that differed from their own. This diversity has continued to today, when there are about 1.8 billion Muslims, in every country of the world.

Primary source: The Qur’an

The Qur'an is organized into chapters called suras, which are divided into verses. This is an English translation of the first sura, recited in daily prayers and on other occasions.
Praised be God, Lord of the Universe, the Beneficent, the Merciful and Master of the Day of Judgment, You alone We do worship and from You alone we do seek assistance, guide us to the right path, the path of those to whom You have granted blessings, those who are neither subject to Your anger nor have gone astray.
Author bio
Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and currently the president of the World History Association. She is the author or editor of thirty books that have appeared in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese, Turkish, and Korean.

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