World History/Middle Eastern Empires
Before the rise of Islam, the Arabian peninsula was dominated by nomadic Bedouin cultures that dominated the region. The polytheistic bedouin clans placed heavy emphasis on kin-related groups, with each clan clustered under tribes. Warfare between tribes was common among the Bedouin, and warfare was given a high honor. The difficult living conditions in the Arabian peninsula created a heavy emphasis on family cooperation, further strengthening the clan system.
Although the majority of Arabia was nomadic, there were several important cities that came into being as centers of trade and religion, such as Yathrib [Medina], Mecca, Karbala and Damascus. The most important of these cities was Mecca, which was an important center of trade in the area, as well as the location of the Ka'ba, one of the most revered shrines in polytheistic Arabia.
Culturally, Pre-Islamic Arabia was similar to what would come later, with some notable differences. Pre-Islam, most Bedouin tribes were polytheistic and animist, with some notable exceptions (three of the ruling tribes of Yathrib were Jewish). A few tribes worshiped one supreme being, called Allah, but this was not common. Like later cultures in the region, the Bedouin tribes placed heavy importance on poetry as well as oral tradition.
Muhammad and the Beginnings of Islam
Muhammad was born to the prominent Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe. His father died shortly after he was born and his mother died when he was six. He was raised by his grandfather until he died when Muhammad was eight and later by his uncle. Muhammad was raised as, and became, a merchant.
While a young man, Muhammad worked as a trader for a wealthy widow, Khadijah, whom he would marry a few years later. His work as a merchant arguably influenced his philosophy as he encountered different cultures and religions, most notably Christianity and Judaism.
Around 610 AD, Muhammad received the first of his revelations from the angel Gabriel; these revelations were written (in Arabic) into the Qu'ran, where they would form the basis for the religion of Islam. The early followers of this new faith were small, including mostly his wife, some clansmen, some servants and slaves. Muhammad began to preach his new faith to his clan and the people of Mecca.
As Islam spread, the dominant clan in Mecca, the Umayyad, saw the new faith as a threat to their political power and to their religious power held by controlling the polytheistic shrines at Ka'ba. As the religion spread, Muhammad grew to be further threatened by the Umayyads. Muhammad was perceived as a danger similar to the conditions in Yathrib, where two religions (Judaism and the Bedouin religion) fought for power.
Because of the danger for Muhammad and his followers in Mecca, they left Mecca in favor of Yathrib. This event is known as the hijra. Muhammad was jubilantly welcomed in Yathrib, and the city was renamed "Medina", due to his ability to end the religious quarrels in the city. Islam spread rapidly in Medina, and became a center of the new faith. Muhammad's power grew in the city of Medina.
Under Muhammad's leadership, Medina strengthened in power and soon rivaled Mecca. Muslim raids on Meccan treaders further endangered the Umayyads. The Quraysh fought with the Muslims in the mid-620s. In 628, Muhammad signed a peace treaty with the Umayyads. In 629, Muhammad and 10,000 converts returned to Mecca after the Meccans broke the treaty. Muhammad conquered the city of Mecca without bloodshed. Claiming to have proven the power of Allah, the shrines surrounding the Ka'ba that symbolized polytheistic false deities were smashed. Muhammad did not take control of Mecca, but kept control into the hands of the Umayyads, and returned to Medina. The Umayyads and others in Mecca converted to Islam in time.
The Rise and Fall of the Umayyad Empire
Muslim armies conquered most of Arabia by 633, further spreading Islam. Muslim armies soon conquered north Africa, part of the Iberian peninsula, Mesopotamia and Persia, significantly shaping the history of the world through the spread of Islam there.
Following the death of Muhammad in 632, tribal leaders convened on who should succed him. After much debate between the choices of Ali (Muhammad's son-in-law) and Abu Bakr (Muhammad's close friend, an early convert, and political strong), Abu Bakr was chosen to lead and became the first caliph, this decision would later spawn controversy. Ali would go on to become the fourth caliph later.
During the caliphate of Abu Bakr (632-634 AD), the warlike Bedouin clans united to spread Islam. The weakness of the rich Byzantine and Persian empires encouraged them to expand. Arab leaders imposed a tax on cities that were cheaper than that of the Byzantines, and the Arabs offered military protection with these taxes. Arabs continued to spread Islam, and respected the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) while seeking to rid those religions they saw as polytheistic. These new lands were placed under Arab control through his jihad (Western fallacy is that jihad is used to spread Islam. Jihad is a struggle physically and comes in many forms).