Religion 211
Review of Unit 3
Foundations of Islam

Dr. Fred Kellogg
Emory & Henry College


    We now turn to Islamic history, from the life of the founder of the faith, Muhammad, through medieval times up until today.  This review relates especially to William Shepard, Introducing Islam (New York:  Rutledge, 2009). 


    First, we need to get our terminology straight.  Which of these sentences is correct?

  1. Judaism is based on the worship of Judah.
  2. Christianity is based on the worship of Christ.
  3. Mohammedanism is based on the worship of Mohammed.

    Sentence #1 is incorrect.  Judaism takes its name from the southern kingdom of Judah, which was the last survivor of the ancient twelve tribes named for the twelve sons of Jacob.  Sentence #2 is correct.  Christians worship Jesus Christ as Son of God.  Sentence #3 is incorrect.  The followers of Mohammed do not consider Jesus or Mohammed to be divine; thus they do not worship either religious leader.  Mohammed is regarded by his followers as a human being, and only God, not human beings, may be worshipped.  So there is no such religion as "Mohammedanism," and the followers of Mohammed do not call themselves "Mohammedans," although these names have sometimes been used by persons outside the religion.  Instead, Mohammed's followers prefer these names:

    All three of these words come from the Arabic root s l m, meaning "yield" or "submit."  So Islam is the religion of submission to God, and one who yields his or her will to God is a Muslim.

    The story of Islam begins in Arabia in the 600's C.E. with the Prophet Muhammad.  His name is often transliterated into English as Mohammed.  Over against the polytheism of most people in Arabia, Muhammad declared that Allah, God, is One, and there are no other gods.  Like the biblical prophets, Muhammad proclaimed a message of God's judgment on his society.  According to Muhammad, God sets high ethical standards of truth, purity, generosity, and justice.  Failure to live up to these standards will bring drastic consequences in both this life and the next life.  Muhammad was especially concerned about the ways in which powerful, wealthy aristocrats in his home town abused their privileged position to take advantage of the poor and the weak.  Do you remember the name of Muhammad's home town?  It was one of these three:  Damascus, Dante, or Mecca.

    If you were thinking of Damascus:  I'm sorry -- Paul had an interesting experience on the road to Damascus, but Muhammad never made it to Damascus.  He would really have enjoyed hiking with Jim Harrison on the Appalachian Trail, eating at the Burger Queen, and worshipping at one of the friendly churches in and around Damascus.  (I enjoy preaching every once in a while at Damascus Presbyterian Church or Damascus United Methodist Church.)  There is even a Damascus in Syria, which must be named after our Virginia town!  ☺  But Islam came only later to Damascus, Syria.

    If Dante came to mind:  I'm sorry, but Dante in his Inferno gave Muhammad a very low place, as you know if you've studied Great Books.  Maybe that's why he didn't make Dante, Virginia, his home town.  

    No, Muhammad grew up in Mecca.  Mecca was a major commercial center on the west coast of Arabia.  It was thriving, but Muhammad's message was that Mecca's prosperity was not benefiting all its citizens.

    You could probably name several of Jesus' leadership team of twelve disciples.  How about Muhammad's first disciples?  His first four followers made up the earliest umma, or Muslim community:

    Opposition to Muhammad's prophetic messages led to his emigration from Mecca to Medina, a key event which is known as the hijra, "emigration."  The hijra took place in the year known to non-Muslims as 622 C.E.  That year is identified by Muslims as the year 1 A.H. (the first year after the hijra).  The Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar rather than a solar calendar, so it is used for religious purposes, not for economic or political matters.  The current Islamic year is 1432 A.H.

    In Medina, Muhammad continued to receive prophetic revelations and to build up the community of Muslims.  After several years of battles and negotiations with the Meccans, he was able to return to Mecca and establish it as the religious center of Islam.  He dedicated the Ka'ba, a great shrine in the center of Mecca which had served as a worship center for many different deities, to the worship of the one God.  That black-draped cubical shrine in the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, houses the Sacred Black Stone in one corner.  It is also a special place for pilgrims who come to Mecca from all over the world.  By the time of Muhammad's death, Islam was well on its way toward becoming a major world religion.



     A series of caliphs,commonly called the Four Orthodox Caliphs, were chosen by the majority of the people after Muhammad's death, to succeed him as leaders of the Islamic community.  Not everyone agreed with those decisions.  So the first three caliphs -- Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman, governed by majority consensus but not unanimity.  Some Muslims felt that the leadership of the community should have gone to Ali, Muhammad's cousin, who had married Muhammad's daughter Fatima, and who had played a leading role since the earliest days of Islam.  

    Finally, after the deaths of the first three caliphs, Ali became the fourth caliph.  But by then the Islamic community had become so fractured that he was not able to restore the unity that it had during Muhammad's lifetime.  Ali had to fight to establish his leadership, and he was assassinated before he could reunite the warring factions. After Ali's death, the Islamic community found itself even more torn apart by civil war over the question of legitimate succession.  The supporters of the majority position came to be known as Sunni Muslims, from the Arabic word sunna, "custom."  They still comprise the main body of Muslims in the world today.  The minority party, which supported Ali and his descendants as the legitimate successors to Muhammad, is known as the Shi`a ("Party") of Ali, and its members are called Shi`i Muslims.  They believe that the Sunnis usurped the caliphate, so that it is their divinely ordained duty to restore their own leadership to its rightful place in the Islamic world.  Today almost all Iranians and a majority of Iraqis are Shi`i Muslims.

    During the Middle Ages, a number of Islamic empires rose and fell.  Several outstanding individuals held the title of caliph.  Abd al-Malik, for example, built mosques in the city which ranks third holiest for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina:  Jerusalem.  In Arabic, Jerusalem is called al-Quds ("The Holy City").  Muhammad in a vision traveled there on a winged horse, which then took Muhammad up into the seven heavens.  Abd al-Malik built the beautiful gold-domed mosque called the Dome of the Rock over the rocky area in which the horse left a hoofprint.  It was that same rock foundation on which Solomon's Temple had been built in biblical times.  Al-Aqsa, with its silver dome, is also on the Temple Mount.  Jerusalem is thus sacred to Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

    The Middle Ages also saw the expansion of Muslim scholarship, as writings of Greek philosophers and scientists were translated into Arabic.  During the decline of the West, many of these writings were lost in Europe.  Fortunately the Arabic manuscripts provided a way to retranslate them back into the original Greek!  A less fortunate means of interchange among the cultures of Islam and European Christianity came with the Crusades, a series of medieval wars between these two peoples, led by knights who wanted to liberate the Holy Land of Israel from Muslims.  They were named from the sign of the Cross (Latin crux) which was often sewn on the clothes of the knights.  The Crusades marked the low point in Muslim-Christian relationships.  The consequences of those years are still with us, contributing to feelings of distrust and lack of understanding between Muslims and Christians, even in our age of close global interconnectedness.

    On the other hand, the Qur'an contains a number of passages that are positive toward Jesus and Christianity.  Jews and Christians are called People of the Book, because they share with Muslims a written scripture.  We have seen that many of the persons important in the Bible are described in the Qur'an as prophets.  The Qur'an gives an especially significant place to Jesus and to his mother Mary; both are treated with reverence and respect throughout the Islamic scripture.  You remember that Jesus is the last in a series of prophets who came into the world before Muhammad.  Muhammad himself is the seal of the prophets, the culmination of the series; his message is consistent with the messages of the earlier prophets.  Jesus taught and performed miracles, but according to the Qur'an, he did not die on the cross.  Instead, he was taken to be with God.  Some Muslims believe that he will return at the end of time.

    The end of time for this review of Islamic history is now; I hope it has been helpful for you.  Comments, suggestions, and corrections are welcome.  If you like, you can send me e-mail:

To review a unit in a different course, go to my Home Page.

To review a different unit in this course, go directly to one of the following:

    Unit 1, Foundations of Judaism
    Unit 2, Modern Judaism
    Unit 4, Modern Islam

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