The Arab religious landscape was to change dramatically with the prophet Muhammad and the religion he founded, Islam.
The descendants of Ishmael lived in relative obscurity throughout the period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman Empires. They mostly kept to themselves in the Arabian Peninsula where desert life was hard, frequently fighting among themselves. But this changed early in the seventh century, less than 600 years after the time of Jesus Christ, when the most famous of Ishmael's descendants came on the scene.
Until the early 600s the Arabs were idol worshippers. The great temple in Mecca had 365 idols (one for each day of the year) and was a source of considerable revenue for local merchants who relied on pilgrims visiting the site for their income.
This religious landscape was to change dramatically with the prophet Muhammad and the religion he founded, Islam.
Muhammad (sometimes spelled Mohammed or Mahomet) was of the Hashemite family (in Arabic, Beni Hashim) of the powerful Koreish (or Quraish) tribe, which controlled the pagan temple in Mecca. According to Islamic belief, it was near Mecca, at Mt. Hira, that the archangel Gabriel first appeared to Muhammad in A.D. 610, revealing wisdom from God. This and subsequent revelations form the Koran (or Quran), the holy scriptures of Islam, a book roughly the length of the New Testament.
Muhammad, whose name means "highly praised," became a courageous and determined preacher of monotheism, the belief in one God, a belief that threatened the commercial prosperity of other members of his tribe. Their attempts to have him killed failed, and in a short time Muhammad brought an end to the polytheistic idolatry of the area, replacing it with Islam (literally meaning "surrender" or "submission" to the one true God, Allah).
Muhammad's preaching achieved something that had eluded Ishmael's descendants from the beginning—unity, thereby enabling them to become a great nation that could spread out and influence other nations.
From these lowly beginnings in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, Islam has spread throughout the world. Today 57 countries are in the Islamic Conference, comprising more than a quarter of all the nations on earth.
Although 22 of them are Arab nations, many of which are populated with descendants of Ishmael, another 35 nations also are either exclusively or significantly Islamic. These range geographically from West Africa across the center of the world to Indonesia, a wide belt of nations that identify with each other as followers of Islam.
In addition, millions more Muslims, followers of Islam, live in North America and Western Europe. The religion continues to expand rapidly due to a high birthrate and aggressive proselytizing.
Today Islam (pronounced Is-LAM, with the emphasis on the second syllable) has around 1.3 billion followers. They all worship Allah (similar emphasis on the second syllable), whom they consider to be the one true God. They worship in mosques, with Friday as their chosen day of worship, though it is also permissible for adherents to work on that day.
Their one-sentence creed, called the shahadah ("testimony") is only eight words in Arabic— La illaha ila Allah, wa Muhammadun rasul Allah —meaning "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet." A solemn and sincere recitation of these words is the sole requirement for being a Muslim. The word Muslim (or Moslem) means "one who submits (to Allah)."
Muslims date their years from the hijrah (sometimes spelled hejira or hegira), Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622. As the Muslim year is set according to the lunar calendar, there are 354 or 355 days in each year, which means that their year is about 11 days shorter than a year in the Western world, which is based on the Gregorian solar calendar. This means that Islamic festivals fall on different days each year according to the Gregorian calendar and gradually work their way back through the Gregorian year.
Muhammad died on June 8, A.D. 632, leaving no male heir and no designated successor. The result was chaos and confusion throughout the Islamic Empire, which after only a decade had already grown to one third the size of the present 48 continental United States.
Only one child by his beloved first wife Khadija had survived him, the beautiful Fatima. She grew to adulthood, married and bore children who also survived. It is through Fatima that all Muhammad's present descendants, called sharifs and sayyids, trace their ancestry. Fatima's husband, Ali ibn Abi Talib, first cousin and adopted son to Muhammad, was also his first convert after Khadija. Ali and Fatima had two young sons at the time of Muhammad's death.
As the nearest blood relative, many thought that Ali should be Muhammad's successor as their leader. After a great deal of argument, he was rejected in favor of a wealthy Meccan cloth merchant who had been an early convert and Muhammad's companion on his famous camel-back flight 10 years earlier. His name was Abu Bakr. He was also the father of Muhammad's favorite wife, Ayesha, and had been appointed to take the place of the prophet leading public prayers at the time of Muhammad's last illness.
The revelations had been to Muhammad, so Abu Bakr was not fully succeeding Muhammad. However, he was given authority over the secular political and administrative functions of the empire, with the title "Khalifah rasul Allah" meaning "Successor to the Messenger of God." In English the title is usually shortened to "caliph" and is given to the head of state in Muslim-governed countries. The office of Islamic Caliphate remained an Islamic institution right down to the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1924, when it was abolished by the secular government of Kemal Ataturk.
Although the transition following the death of Muhammad was sudden and unexpected and caused some bad feeling among the followers of Ali, Fatima's husband, the tribes remained united under Abu Bakr.
Rapid expansion of the Islamic Empire
Before he died Abu Bakr appointed Omar ibn al-Khattab as his successor. Caliph Omar (or Umar) was the first caliph to assume the illustrious title Amir al-Muminin, meaning "Commander of the Faithful." It was during his 10-year reign that the first great wave of Islamic territorial expansion occurred as the children of Ishmael pushed outward in all directions from their ancient desert homeland.
Caliph Omar was an able commander of his troops and proved a formidable foe to the two great superpowers of his day, the Byzantine and Persian Empires. The former was the Eastern Roman Empire, which had developed out of the older Roman Empire after Constantine, in the fourth century, established a new capital in Byzantium (renaming it Constantinople, after himself)—now Istanbul, Turkey. It controlled Asia Minor, the Aegean Peninsula, much of North Africa and the Near East.
To the northeast of the Arabian Peninsula lay the Persian, or Sassanid, Empire. The Persian and Byzantine Empires were constantly fighting each other, weakening them and making them vulnerable to the new, vigorous, zealous and youthful Islamic Empire coming out of Arabia. The Sassanid Empire fell, but the Byzantine remained as a continually threatened and shrinking empire, finally falling to Muslim Turks in 1453.
To cries of Allahu Akbar ("God is Great!"), the Islamic call to arms, the camel- and horse-mounted Arab warriors were formidable opponents, defeating all the forces that were sent against them. Not since the days of Alexander the Great had there been such a force, conquering all before it so quickly. A century of conquest lay before them. Syria and the Holy Land were taken in 635-6; the area of Iraq, the following year; Egypt and Persia, four years later.
Jerusalem was their greatest prize, captured in 638. Called Al-Kuds in Arabic, meaning "the Holy," Jerusalem remains the third-holiest city of Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven on his winged steed Burak from the rock that is visible inside the Dome of the Rock, built in the late seventh century and one of the most architecturally magnificent buildings on earth.
Muslims also believe this is where Abraham came to sacrifice his son—the son, however, being Ishmael rather than Isaac as the Bible attests (Genesis 22:1-14). Built on the great platform of the Temple Mount constructed centuries earlier by Herod the Great, the Dome of the Rock and the surrounding area is today the most bitterly contested piece of real estate on earth.
Within a century after the death of Muhammad, the Arab Empire stretched from the Middle East across North Africa to Spain in the west and eastward across Central Asia to India. One of their advances even reached the gates of Paris before being halted by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours near Poitiers in 732, exactly 100 years after Muhammad's death.
Rapid Muslim expansion now halted until the 12th century, when another great expansion of Islam took place under the Sufis (Muslim mystics) who spread Islam throughout India, Central Asia, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa. Muslim traders helped spread the religion even further, to Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and China.
"Islam's essential egalitarianism within the community of the faithful and its official discrimination against the followers of other religions won rapid converts," notes the Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th Edition, Vol. 9, p. 912, "Islam"). Although Jews and Christians, as "people of the Book" were tolerated, they had to pay a special tax called jizyah. However, "pagans ... were required to either accept Islam or die" (ibid.).
Following the assassination of the Caliph Omar in November 644 while leading prayers in the mosque of Medina, a body of electors once again bypassed Ali when choosing a successor. The caliphate was bestowed on Othman ibn Affan, who had been an early convert to Islam and a close companion of the prophet.
During his period of rule the Koran was completed in its present form. Previously, most of its contents had simply been memorized in the heads of Muhammad's followers (Muhammad, himself illiterate, had never written them down). These were now collected by a team of men authorized to put the sacred writings together, under the leadership of the Islamic scholar Zayd ibn Thabit.
Muslims believe the Koran is the literal word of God (Kalimat Allah), not the words of Muhammad. The first words of the Koran are Bism'illah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, meaning "In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate."
Islam splits over succession
Othman ruled 12 years (644-656) before being assassinated in Medina. His assassination heralded open religious and political conflicts within the Islamic community that continue to this day.
After Othman's death, leadership of the community finally fell to Ali, Fatima's aging husband, who had been living in retirement as a scholar. To his followers, Ali was the first and only lawful caliph. Most Muslims accepted him as the fourth caliph, but many were bitterly opposed to his rule.
The empire was to suffer continual political and religious strife, uprisings and rebellions. Five years later Ali, too, was assassinated. Before any of his sons could be appointed as successor, Othman's nephew, head of the Umayyad (or Omayyad) branch of the Koreish tribe, assumed control, bringing the dispute between the factions to a head.
Ali's followers believed that all caliphs must be descended from Ali as Muhammad's closest blood relative. This group was called the "party of Ali" (in Arabic, the Shiat Ali, or Shiites). The majority believed that anybody could be appointed caliph, regardless of lineage. This group was called the Sunni Muslims, sunna being the "path" or the "way" of the Prophet. In contrast to the Shiites, the Sunnis have generally accepted the rule of the caliphs.
Violence followed in 680 when Ali's son Hussein, a grandson of Muhammad, was killed along with 72 of his relatives and companions at Karbala in what is now Iraq. The Shiites now had a martyr. They grew in numbers and resolve and were increasingly embittered at the dominance of the Sunni Muslims. This animosity continues to the present day.
The majority Sunnis make up about 85 percent of all Muslims, and the Shiites (or Shia) constitute the remainder. Although they agree on the fundamentals of Islam, political, theological and philosophical differences have further widened the gap between the two. Complicating things even further has been the tendency among the Shiite Muslims to break up into various sects.
Today, the Shiites are the dominant force in Iran and the biggest single religious community in Lebanon and Iraq. Remembering the fanaticism of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979, many people think Shiites are inclined toward terrorism. However, most anti-Western terrorists come from the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, which originated in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century.
One of the appeals of Islam is the emphasis on Ummah or community. "Though there have been many Islamic sects and movements, all followers are bound by a common faith and a sense of belonging to a single community" (ibid., p. 912). This sense of community has only been strengthened in the last 200 years during the period of Western supremacy. Achieving Arab and Islamic unity is very much a desire of Muslims in today's world.
Ishmael becomes the prophesied "great nation"
After Ali's death the Umayyads turned the caliphate into a hereditary office, ruling from Damascus for almost a century until 750. During this time most of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) was conquered along with what was left of North Africa. To the east, Islamic armies swept over Central Asia toward India and China. Before the end of their period of rule, the Muslims built an empire that was larger than Rome's, converting millions to Islam.
The Umayyads were replaced by the Abbasid dynasty, whose 37 caliphs ruled from Baghdad for five centuries (750-1258). At this time, while much of Europe was still in the Dark Ages (isolated in no small part by hostile Muslims along its borders), the Islamic world was a great civilization, preserving the literature and learning of the ancient world, leading the world in knowledge and understanding of mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography and medicine.
As had been divinely promised to Abraham and Hagar concerning their son so many centuries earlier, Ishmael truly did become a "great nation" (Genesis 17:20; 21:18)—one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.
Like all civilizations, however, the Abbasid dynasty came to an end after falling into a slow decay and decline. During this period, as central authority waned, the unity of Islam was shattered, a problem that impedes Muslims to this day. The deathblow for the empire came when the Mongol hordes descended on Baghdad in 1258, killing the last caliph, slaughtering the city's inhabitants and ending the empire.
The Crusades: Battle for the Holy Land
During the reigns of the Abbasid caliphs, a major clash occurred between Islam and Catholic Europe. With the expansion of Islam into the Iberian Peninsula and the attempt to conquer France, there had already been conflict between the two, but the wresting of Jerusalem from the forces of Islam on July 15, 1099, was the beginning of a long and protracted period of rivalry between the two religious forces.
The European Crusaders pillaged, raped, murdered and enslaved the peoples of Jerusalem in a frenzy of carnage that both Jews and Muslims remember to this day. The sacred Dome of the Rock was taken over and turned into a church, with the Christian cross replacing the Islamic crescent. Muslims were incensed and vowed to retake the city from the infidels (meaning "unbelievers," originally a Latin word used by Catholics to label Muslims).
Not until Oct. 2, 1187, were Islamic forces able to take back control of Jerusalem, under the leadership of Saladin (Salah ad-Din, meaning "Righteousness of the Faith"), the sultan of Egypt and Syria. Saladin proclaimed jihad (holy war) to retake Palestine from the enemies of Islam.
The golden cross at the top of the Dome of the Rock was replaced by the Muslim crescent, but Saladin did not seek revenge on his opponents. Instead, he treated both enemy soldiers and the civilian population with mercy and kindness—a stark contrast to the Europeans who had slaughtered tens of thousands when they took the city.
There were to be more Crusades for another century, briefly retaking Jerusalem from 1229 to 1239 and 1243 to 1244, but the forces of the cross eventually had to leave the Holy Land to Muslims. Not until 1917, during World War I, were Western Christians again able to retake Jerusalem, and then they kept control of the city for only three decades.
The rise of the Ottoman Empire
The next great power in the region was that of the Ottoman Turks, who seized control of Constantinople in 1453, finally destroying the collapsing Byzantine Empire founded by Rome more than a millennium earlier. The Turks, an Islamic but non-Arab people, took control of Jerusalem in 1517 and were to dominate the Middle East for the following four centuries.
The Ottomans expanded rapidly into southeastern Europe and on to the gates of Vienna before being pushed back toward the end of the 17th century. A period of decline followed in the 19th century with nations throughout the Balkans and North Africa breaking away from Ottoman rule.
The Arabs resented Turkish control and waited patiently for an opportunity to regain their independence and the former days of glory.
Ishmael's sons would be heard from again.