When and how did the religion of Islam come into existence? What are its values and beliefs? How did it rise to dominate many nations? And will it ultimately persist?
Thousands of Muslim pilgrims flock to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during the anual Hajj.
Source: Al Jazeera Creative Commons
The two largest religions in the world are Christianity and Islam. Christianity is the largest with about 2 billion followers, and Islam isn't far behind at around 1.5 billion. If present trends continue, it's expected that Islam, with a rate of growth four times that of Christianity, will become the world's largest religion in the next 20 years. What does this mean for the world?
At times the followers of these two faiths have lived alongside one another in relative peace. But often their interactions have been punctuated by hostility, violence and war.
The most recent major explosion that rocked and shocked the Western world occurred Sept. 11, 2001, when Muslim hijackers flew four U.S. airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, killing almost 3,000 Americans and citizens of a number of other countries. The United States was transformed almost overnight, as the need for security at home and abroad, including American involvement in two foreign wars, have placed a severe drain on its treasury and helped lead the world's only military superpower to the verge of financial collapse.
The fortune that America has expended continues to present it with critical choices regarding security issues and its ability to prevent future attacks. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has stated that the looming reductions in military spending will be devastating. Yet certain cuts are inevitable if America is to remain financially afloat. The encroachment toward bankruptcy will surely result in chinks in America's defensive armor, which others will certainly seek to exploit.
If the past is any indication, Islam will continue to play a major role in geopolitical events. It's no coincidence that the "Arab Spring" (with its toppling of Arab dictators), the never-ending conflict over Israel, and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons continue to dominate our news headlines. The Middle East has long been the "ground zero" of Bible prophecy, and understanding Islam and its history helps us understand why.
A long cultural advance through conquest
Islam began in Arabia six centuries after the time of Jesus Christ with its founder Muhammad. He gained a following that, after his death, soon swept across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond—carrying with it a distinct culture. One historian explains, "Muhammad was one of the cleverest leaders in human history because he built a culture so strong that it has lasted for fourteen hundred years with very little change" (Mark Gabriel, Culture Clash, 2007, p. xvi).
It helps if we understand that Islam is more than a religion. It is a way of life into which true believers immerse themselves. "A Muslim person is indoctrinated and programmed by that system, though he may not realize it. He grows up in that way of life. He cannot think to ask if this is right or wrong. His mind cannot go beyond that line that Muhammad drew" (p. 3).
The faith is primarily an imposed one—at times by force.
When many think of Islam today, the word jihad frequently comes to mind, typically thought of as "holy war." The word of itself, however, does not necessarily imply violence. It simply means "struggle" and can refer to a spiritual struggle within oneself. But it can and also does mean the struggle for expanding the territory of Islam.
"The semantic meaning of the Arabic term jihad has no relation to holy war or even war in general. It derives, rather from the root j.h.d., the meaning of which is to strive, exert oneself, or take extraordinary pains" (Reuven Firestone, Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam, 1999, p. 16). Yet for a large portion of Islamic history, many of its followers have adopted a pattern of aggression and bloodshed, which they justify as "holy war."
History shows that Muhammad engaged in warfare for much of his adult life. And the Islamic religion requires complete obeisance to this human leader, regularly referred to by Muslims as "the perfect man."
Much of the teaching of Islam opposes the teachings of Jesus, who said His disciples should be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). Jesus even commanded all His followers that they should pray for their enemies who persecuted them and reviled them (verse 44).
Militant Muslims, however, in accordance with Islam's holy book, the Koran (or Quran), seek to annihilate, enslave or subjugate their enemies—anyone who does not accept Islam. They cite Koranic verses such as Sura 2:193, which says, "Fight against them until idolatry [worship of any god other than Allah] is no more and [Allah's] religion reigns supreme."
Muhammad's early religious exposure
Muhammad was born around A.D. 570 in the city of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. His early life, as religious scholar Huston Smith explains, "was cradled in tragedy, for his father died a few days before he was born, his mother when he was six, and his grandfather, who cared for him after his mother's death, when he was eight" (quoted by John Miller and Aaron Kenedi, Inside Islam, 2002, p. 15). Muhammad was then raised by his uncle and eventually became a trader, traveling throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
At the time of his birth, Mecca was already viewed as a holy place due to its being a center of idolatry and religious practices. The city was the home of the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure about 50 feet high and 35 by 40 feet at its base. It originally housed hundreds of images of tribal gods, as well as a black meteorite, which those who worshipped there believed had been sent from heaven.
Even though it was a pre-Islamic pagan shrine, the Kaaba became and remains the central focus of a Muslim's pilgrimage to Mecca. Every Muslim who is physically and financially capable of doing so is expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, known as a hajj, at some time in his life. This is one of the five "pillars," or religious duties, of Islam.
As Muhammad grew and traveled, he became exposed to a variety of religions—including Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism—and philosophical concepts. It should come as no surprise that the religion he founded was syncretistic—blending religious teachings and customs. "Religiously it stands in the Abrahamic family of religions, while philosophically it builds on the Greeks" (p. 11). Of course, Judaism and post-apostolic Christianity also incorporated Greek falsehoods.
In line with corrupted Christianity, Muhammad embraced the pagan concept of the immortality of the soul and accompanying belief in eternal torment in hell. (For the truth on these matters, request or download our free booklet Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach? )
Encounter with the spirit realm
As an adult, Muhammad became accustomed to frequenting a cave on Mount Hira on the outskirts of Mecca in search of solitude. It was here, at the age of 40, that Muhammad claimed the angel Gabriel revealed Allah's word to him for the first time. Historians sum up Muhammad's version of events this way:
"One day without warning a voice spoke to him. It must have been the first time that the sense of something extraordinary had come to him so clearly ... The Voice said three words in Arabic which were to shake the world. They translate into English: 'You are the Messenger of God'" (Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad, 1980, p. 71).
As Huston Smith relates: "Soon from this mountain cave was to sound the greatest phrase of the Arabic language; the deep, electrifying cry that was to rally a people and explode their power to the limits of the known world: a ilaha illa 'Llah! There is no god but [Allah] ... A voice falls from heaven saying 'You are the appointed one'" (quoted by Miller and Kenedi, p. 16).
"The words ... came to Muhammad in manageable segments over twenty-three years through voices that seemed at first to vary and sometimes sounded like 'the reverberating of bells,' but which gradually condensed into a single voice that identified itself as Gabriel's" (p. 21).
Did this really happen? Not as attributed, for God would not have sent the angel Gabriel to communicate anything contrary to true Scripture—and these messages, while they contained occasional right teachings, contradicted the Bible in various respects. So there are really two alternatives here: Either Muhammad was a charlatan who made this up or he actually encountered a fallen angel, a demonic spirit, posing as Gabriel.
The latter possibility should not be considered farfetched, as demons are involved in false religion (see 1 Corinthians 10:20), and Satan himself appears as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14).
Muhammad stated that in the first visitation from Gabriel, the angel ordered him to recite this revelation to others to spread Allah's message. He shared these visions with his wife Khadijah, his cousin Ali and his friend Abu Bakr. This small group became his first converts.
Most of Muhammad's recitations at the time promoted compassion, kindness, honesty and charity. Others, however, went against prevailing religious beliefs of the day. Some railed against unfair contracts and usury and provoked resistance from powerful business people in Mecca. His teachings that one should worship no god but Allah brought him into conflict with those in Mecca who worshiped all manner of gods and goddesses.
The Night Journey and the flight to Medina
In 615 some of Muhammad's followers fled to Ethiopia. In 619 Khadijah died. And a year later Muhammad experienced his so-called Night Journey, or Night of Ascent, a vision in which he was supposedly guided by the angel Gabriel through heaven into the presence of Allah.
Muhammad related that Gabriel led him to a white mule with wings attached to its thighs—the same mule that had supposedly carried other prophets, including Abraham. Muhammad says that he got on and went high into the sky and then was taken to masjid al-aqsa, "the farthest mosque," where he met many prophets, including Moses and Jesus. (After Muhammad's time this location was taken to be a reference to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem—though Jerusalem is nowhere mentioned in the Koran.)
Muhammad says his journey continued with his ascent to heaven, passing through seven heavenly realms. At the seventh level, he supposedly saw an old man whom Gabriel identified as Abraham. Gabriel then took Muhammad into paradise, where he spoke to Allah.
Supposedly Allah instructed Muhammad regarding prayers, telling Muhammad that Muslims must utter 50 prayers a day. Moses, however, later told Muhammad to go back to Allah to have this unbearable number reduced. So Muhammad did, and Allah reduced them to 10. But Moses then told Muhammad this was still too many, whereupon Muhammad asked Allah to again reduce the number, which he did—to five. Muhammad then returned to Mecca.
Following Muhammad's directive, devout Muslims still pray five times a day—offering formal prayers before sunrise, at noon, in the late afternoon, at sunset and in the evening before retiring for the night. For centuries individuals have been appointed to announce these times to Muslim communities by loudly chanting the call to prayer.
The next significant chapter in Muslim history occurred in 622, when Muhammad and his followers, facing increasing opposition, left Mecca for Medina. Before the advent of Islam, the city of Medina was known as Yathrib, but it was personally renamed by Muhammad as Medina. Medina in Arabic was madinat an-nabi, which means "city of the prophet." It's regarded as the second holiest place in Islam (after Mecca) and is Muhammad's burial place. The journey to Medina by Muhammad and his disciples is called the Hegira or Hijra, which means flight or departure. This event marks year 1 of the Muslim calendar.
In Medina, Muhammad fought against and ultimately banished or executed his Jewish opponents and their political allies, took control of the city and built the first Islamic mosque.
In 624, Muhammad's followers in Medina defeated opponents from Mecca at the Battle of Badr, and Muhammad returned to Mecca to rule. His followers destroyed the images of tribal gods in the Kaaba and marketplace and began the institutionalization of Islam.
"A fingerprint of blood through every page"
Muhammad continued to extend Islamic control in Arabia until his death in Medina in 632. Afterward, his followers continued to use warfare in their religious aims. They had the prophet himself as their example: "Muhammad's military campaigns were, in one sense, the beginning of the Muslim conquests. His example showed that armed force was going to be an acceptable and important element first in the defense of the new religion and then in its expansion" (Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests, 2007, p. 48).
The Koran contains many statements that, when taken at face value, call for violence and bloodshed against those who refuse to submit to Allah and accept Islam. For example, Sura 9:5 states, "Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them"—unless and until they convert to Islam.
These words allow for beastly brutality as well as magnanimous mercy. What way of life has often prevailed? Here is the observation offered by one former radical Muslim: "Islam has left a fingerprint of blood through every page of its history, beginning with Hijra up to this very day ... From the time of Hijra, when Muhammad and his followers emigrated from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622, up to this hour, terror and fear have been the strategy of Islam" (Reza Safa, Inside Islam, 1996, pp. 36, 47).
Another source catalogues some of the violent expansion: "During the first thousand years of military competition between the cross and the crescent, Muslim standards waved in triumph over countless battlefields as the ghazis [tribal warriors] who followed Mohammed's revelation annihilated Christian armies and devoured 'infidel' states, ultimately dominating half of the territory we now include in Europe. Arab cavalry raided north of the Pyrenees [into France], and Muslim emirs ruled over the Iberian Peninsula [of Spain and Portugal] for centuries.
"In a later wave of Muslim conquests, the Turks rampaged across the Balkans, their janissaries [infantry units of the sultan] failing them only at the plague-haunted gates of Vienna. Tatars [central Asian Turks] thrust deep into Poland, Arabs mastered Sicily, and the Greeks lost their independence for half a millennium ...
"The greatest of struggles between civilizations produced history's longest military confrontation ... the thirteen-hundred-year contest for hegemony over the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe never really ceased ... The intervals of peace were simply fits of exhaustion" (Ralph Peters, Endless War, 2010, pp. 3-4).
War a primary vehicle for Islamic expansion
Here is the observation of two brothers who were reared as Muslims but read the Holy Bible and came to believe in Jesus (both of them now longtime professors and administrators at Christian colleges):
"Several conclusions must be drawn from the fourteen hundred years of shared Muslim-Christian history:
"With the notable exception of the Crusades, Muslims have initiated almost all wars, due largely to the philosophy of jihad.
"War is not a sidebar of history for Islam; it is the main vehicle for religious expansion. It is the Muslim duty to bring world peace via the sword ...
"While modern people are familiar only with the defensive Islam of the last three hundred years [standing against the encroachment of Western culture and imperialism], the religion has never forgotten the previous one thousand years of conquest in the cause of Allah. It is this traditional conquering Islam that has reemerged" (Ergun Caner and Emil Caner, Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs, 2009, p. 74).
The two former Muslims go on to show the modern terrorist mindset as in line with that history—and completely contrary to Christian thinking:
"The Hadith [the passed-down compilation of reports about Muhammad's statements and actions that Muslims consider supplemental to and clarifying of the Koran] explicitly states that the Muslim is promised eternal victory in the act of holy war. Victory includes both the success of battle, the promise of eternal forgiveness, and translation to the highest level of paradise ...
"The terrorists who died in the bombing [of Sept. 11, 2001] sincerely believed that they would be forgiven of all sin by Allah. They followed a route completely antithetical to the Christian mind, since Muslim beliefs are antipathetic to the Christian faith. Since Allah is completely removed from his people and is in no way incarnational or personal, the terrorists followed the route imposed upon them by the only sources they trusted and that guaranteed them paradise: the literal rendering of the Hadith and Quran" (p. 195).
According to the teachings of the Bible, such thinking is wholly wrong. The servants of the true God in this age are not to engage in military conquest of the world or attacks against those with different beliefs. Rather, we are to reach out to the world with the good news of God's coming reign. And as much as possible, we are to be, as earlier mentioned, peacemakers.
Peace through Jesus Christ's reign
Yet it should be mentioned that God will ultimately take over the entire world when Jesus Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God over all nations. And this will include wiping out forces that fight against Him. However, this conquering of the globe will not be by human followers but through the direct intervention of Jesus Christ coming in power and glory with the hosts of heaven. Moreover, this taking over is to save humanity from itself and bring about the real peace the world has long yearned for.
Tragically, in this age of deception the whole world is confused and divided, with religious deception spawning untold wars. The conflict will continue until that time when our Lord Jesus Christ appears from on high to quash all false religion that has led to so much bloodshed and to bring eventual eternal joy and rest.
Ultimately, the throngs of ages past, present and future will live together without fear throughout the vast reaches of eternity. Then there will be no Islam—nor any other false religion. For all will know the truth. And the truth will make us free (John 8:32). Let us all pray for that day!