Islam is the third and final Abrahamic religion, after Judaism and Christianity. It is believed that the descendents of Islam can be attributed directly to Abraham. “Abraham married Sarah. Sarah had no son, so Abraham, wanting to continue his line, took Hagar for his second wife. She bore him a son Ishmael, whereupon Sarah conceived and likewise had a son, named Isaac. Sarah then demanded that Abraham banish Ishmael and Hagar from the tribe. This is where the first divergence arises between the biblical and Qu’ranic accounts. According to the Qu’ran , Ishmael went to the place where Mecca was to rise. His descendants became Muslims; whereas those of Isaac were Hebrews and became Jews.”

Prior to the birth of Islam in 622 C.E. the environment in the Arabian Peninsula was characterized by warring tribes, trade routes, multiple religions (Christianity, Judaism, Mysticism, Polytheism, etc.), and a general ambiance of ambiguity. All of which the Prophet had to overcome when he established a new faith. This faith, Islam, was founded based on the revelations of God as they were revealed to Muhammad Ibn Abd Allah through the archangel Gabriel. “Through a combination of divine revelation and great personal character, Muhammad brought humanity a religion that offered alternatives not only to the idolatry and bigotry of the desert Arabs, but also to the world.”

Before becoming the Prophet, Muhammad led a relatively modest life. He was raised in a Bedoin tribe by his grandfather after both his parents died. When his grandfather died, his Uncle Abu Talib became his legal guardian and protective figure in his life. Muhammad worked as both a shepherd and a caravan manager before he married the caravan owner. Khadija was fifteen years his senior but became his life partner.

At the age of forty during periods of retreat, Muhammad began having his first vision. This vision and the ones that followed were interpreted to be verses and the direct word of God. They were compiled into the holy text of Islam, the Qu’ran.

Islam is defined as the “submission” to one God, and the revelations revealed to Muhammad outlined a means of praising this one God. The visions included verses such as “the understanding that only through devotion to one and only one God and through righteous observance of the revealed law could people attain salvation in the after-life.”  These laws included practices of regular prayer, almsgiving and charitable treatment of the poor, modesty with the opposite sex, and the rejection of idols and false Gods.

Muhammad preached his revelations to people in Mecca and gained a small group of followers, including his wife. Initially his Uncle, although not a believer himself but a prominent man in the town, was able to protect Muhammad from criticism. However, after his death, Muhammad and his followers were subjected to violent reaction toward his new faith. Huston Smith offers a number of reasons why Islam was met with this violent reaction:

Islam’s “uncompromising monotheism threatened polytheistic beliefs and the considerable revenue that was coming to Mecca from pilgrimages to its 360 shrines, it’s moral teachings demanded an end to the licentiousness that citizens clung to, and it’s social content challenged an unjust order. In a society riven with class distinctions, the Prophet preached a message that was extremely democratic.”  In order to protect themselves it was critical for Muhammad and his followers to flee Mecca. They were invited to practice their faith in Medina, a town 280 miles north. The migration of believers in 622 C.E. became known as the Hijra and marks the beginning of the Muslim calender.

In Medina, Muhammad flourished as a Prophet, and gained a mass following in and around their adopted town. Eight years after he had fled, Muhammad was welcomed back to Mecca and the city underwent a mass conversion to Islam.  Two years later in 632 C.E., Muhammad died, leaving behind the foundations for a religion that would one day parallel in power both Christianity and Judaism. Within a century of his death “his followers conquered Armenia, Persia, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, North Africa, and Spain.”

Islam was able to successfully expand into a major religion following the death of the Prophet for a number of reasons. The first is that the record of Muhammad’s visions into a sacred text provided a fundamental and eternal source of his legitimacy. Secondly, the compilation of sacred Islamic laws called the Shari’a , were established after the death of the Prophet in order for Muslims to have a guide that would dictate to them how to live their life according to Allah’s desire as was dictated in the Qu’ran. This was also a means of unifying all the believers regardless of their background, so that they could establish a similar pattern of life that would bind them in faith. The shari’a “entails a whole mentality and way of life which, when fully adhered to permeates the minds, actions, and feelings of Muslims.”  Finally, “as a result, the Islamic mentality is characterized by dichotomies; things either conform to Islam or they oppose it.”  It is this last point that led Muslims to feel the need to expand their faith to those who oppose it and/or were unaware of it.

Pre-modern Muslims were aware that “for a movement in Islamdom to gain popular support, it had to aspire to bring Muslims and non-muslims more fully under shari’a rule. The opportunity to further Islamic goals prompted powerful responses and inspired great political and military efforts.”  As the Muslims invaded east and west in the name of Islam, they understood their success to be a symbol of Allah’s approval of their actions. However, as Islam spread and grew as a religion it also brought fear to other established religions, especially Christianity, because it threatened their territorial power. “Unlike the Inner Asians and Vikings, who were simple tribesmen with few ambitions beyond plunder, Muslims were civilized people who brought a rival faith and an appealing culture. Europeans under Islamic rule adopted the Islamic religion, the Arabic or Turkish language, and Muslim cultural forms. More than just a military threat, Islam offered an alternate way of life.”  This expresses the early signs of centuries of inter-faith antagonism stimulated by mutual threat. The success of Islam’s expansion would carry through until the modern era.