The Emergence of Islam from Arabia

Emergence of Islam from Arabia

      The extreme climate at Arabia around 500 CE was as tough as it is today. The area was completely dominated by tribes who had their own sets of values and religious traditions. Most people lived nomadic hard life where basic survival itself was always a challenge. It was a domain of nomadic bedu, with occasional settlements where they could find water, cultivation, trading and some cultic centres.

Islam technically means that Muslims are duty bound to create a just and equitable society. It promoted distribution of wealth by regular donations and considered stockpiling of fortune as wrong. Thus daily worship and regular donations became two pillars of Islam. Islam maintained that God can be viewed only through his natural creations which needed to be observed with lot of attentions and with lots of curiosity. This tenet later gave a big boost to successive generations who excelled in the field of natural sciences.

      Before prosperity of Mecca, local tribes were engaged in constant struggle with each other for securing for their people whatever little was available there; each day was a struggle for survival. Life could not be thought outside one's own tribe. The working of tribes has some unique features like a pack of wolves. They always remain together and fight the enemy jointly and all get share of their loot. Sure there are chiefs and ordinary people within a tribe but everybody is taken care by donations and grants by other members of the tribe who can afford.

      The ethics for punishments were also unique for an Arabian Tribe where killing any one member of the opposite tribe could revenge loss of a member of the tribe; it is not the person who is guilty but the entire tribe. Each tribe was own government by itself and there was nothing comparable to current systems where you have a central authority and independent police etc. for fixing and punishing offenders. In a tribe's scenario, the head of the tribe has his authority only until his clan is supportive of him but once he loses that respect, he can get overthrown by a new contender. Every individual or clan was as strong as his tribe as no other entity can have separate existence outside his tribe. Any time a chief of a tribe failed to retaliate for loss of life or property of any of his members; soon there will be a loss of respect for his entire clan and anyone from outside would be free to kill its members with impunity Justice had to be immediate and response to each event of violence has to be at least equal if not bigger. These conditions were perfect platform for constant violence among the tribes with no end in sight.

      To take care of communal spirit of the people under such conditions, Arabians have evolved an ideology called 'muruwah' which took care of their religious aspirations, whatever little they had. There were very many deities who were worshipped by Arabs at their shrines but there was no developed mythology or philosophy or anything which could be compared to a full-scale religion. They hardly had any sense of what happens after death and instead believed in fate. Their poetry of that time makes it clear that their basic belief was that fate ruled their destiny and sooner or later fate will bring death. In a social set up with so much of deprivation, mortality; illiteracy; malnutrition and rampant violence, it was but obvious that people start believing only in their fate.

      It has been seen in other context also that progress relating to mind and hearts could take place only on a full stomach. In a contrasting situation, ancient India had made such strong strides for developing spirituality and literature because human survival was never an issue. All season rivers have created a very fertile basin where a simple scratch of soil allowed a farmer to grow what ever seed were sown. The dense forest cover and an excellent climate ensured a comfortable life for all the inhabitants. These conditions of Sindhu Sarasvati Civilization are certainly a big reason for allowing our sages to achieve highest possible climb for human minds.

Pre-Islamic Arabia

      Coming back to Arabia of before 500 CE, marwah had far greater significance in terms of all aspects of social, religious and spiritual lives of the tribal populace and included characteristics like manliness, courage in battle, patience, endurance in sufferings and above all absolute dedication to one's tribe. It required a person to follow dictate of his chief without any questioning and to go all the way to avenge any actual or perceived wrong committed against his tribe and specially protect its vulnerable members like women and infants. Marwah principles may sound very brutal apparently but there are plus points not to be ignored. For example, it encouraged indifference to material possessions and encouraged deep and strong egalitarian values.

      But times change and so does the comparative importance of doctrines. Arab by now was surrounded by well settled and prospering mini empires in North-Western Syrian area was controlled by Ghassanids, Arab Vassals of the Byzantines while the North East by the Lakhmids of Al Hira (presently called Iraq) who were under control of Persia. Peninsula Arab was also coming to know of modern developments in all directions. The members of Mecca tribes also accompanied merchants to Syria and Iraq and were not left untouched with the prosperity and civilization growth in these areas. Marwah was certainly not able to provide answers to the new questions thrown out by new situations.

      Arabians were also very unhappy that Prophets of Jews and Christians had already visited them with their holy books but their High God, al-Lah has not favoured them with a prophet or scripture. The people of Mecca were so proud to have the cubical shaped black stone shrine at Kabah but they had still not been blessed with a face and book. People from entire peninsula for pilgrimage frequented Kabah. The tradition of non-violence in the sanctuary and sacred area around the shrine offered tremendous opportunity to all and sundry to carry out their trade and commercial activity without fear for violence. Hashims were a poor clan of Quraysh tribe of Mecca which was the main tribe having control over Mecca.

      But between 500 to 600 CE, conditions saw some changes. The trade route from Mecca to northern Arabia increased like never before. This converted Mecca as one of the most important human settlements in entire Arab. They now started enjoying material success and had enough food and other comforts and a different kind of life of luxuries. Mecca slowly emerged as an important trade and banking centre. Trade included wines from Syria and Persia; weapons, spices, textiles and spears from India; slaves from Africa. Caravans used to move between Yemen and Syria and Mecca was a crucial stay point for the same. Mecca soon was also visited by many people for pilgrimage. But prosperity of Mecca had lead to materialism and Quraysh now got richer more than they ever imagined or worked for. But this development simultaneously weakened the tribal ethos of communal bond and taking care of weak and poor exactly in similar ways as material success impacts social life anywhere else.

      Newly arrived money from the increased business in their town resulted in their lifestyles pushing back their original tribal values. Tribe was no more first, now the priority started going to individual me and myself. This resulted in clans start fighting with each other for a bigger piece of cake. This is the time when Muhammad, (born in 570 CE) himself a small Hashim merchant started worrying about the falling ethics of Quraysh people and slowly got convinced that unless the Quraysh were to get an altogether new communal bond at the centre of their lives and change their greedy and selfish ways, they will soon meet their moral, political and physical doom.

      He was not literate and nothing much is known about his first forty years of life. But surely he had no exposure to hardcore religion or scriptures or philosophies but was a pious man. He got married to a rich widow, Khadijah and they had several children but only one daughter named Fatima survived. As the year went by, Muhammad turned more and more towards monotheistic meditation, as was the common practice in his area. He used to take his family every year in Ramadan to a nearby mountain for a spiritual retreat. It was just a common practice among many people to visit shrines, spend time praying their High God and distribute alms and foods to needy people as per their capacity. He may not have been a successful merchant but he was a man with exceptional talents. He knew that many Jews and Christians who come in contact with Arabs makes fun of their not being blessed with own theology or a Prophet who could convey directly what their High God wish to tell them.

      Finally; one day Muhammad was torn from sleep and was directed by an angel Gabriel and ordered to 'Recite' to the people the message sent by al-Lah for his people. And in spite of his repeated denial and expressed inability to do so, the angel enveloped him and squeezed tightly and forced him to accept his command. He was completely terrified with this experience and shared his shock with his wife who consoled him hard to suggest that he was a pious man who cared for his traditions and his people and that no one will harm him just for nothing. They consulted their relative who convinced them that this is a revelation from
the God and that Muhammad has been identified as a prophet for becoming a divine envoy to Arabs. It is said that it was years later that Muhammad got himself convinced about it and started preaching to his Quraysh people and. progressively started creating a scripture for Arabs in their own language.

      Between 610 and 632 until the death of Muhammad, he was visited by Angel Gabriel without any periodicity many times and prompted him to recite various Ayats to his people. Unlike any other example in the history, Quran has been revealed to Muhammad bit-by-bit, line-by-line and verse by verse over a period of twenty two long years. The process of this creation was very tormenting for Muhammad who is reported to get gripped by spasm and sweat ran down even on colder days. The unbearable pain forced him to take his head in between his knees, a meditative position that was usually taken by mystics of that area.

      But for first many years, Muhammad did not know much about revelations made by earlier Prophets to the Jews and Christians so, surely, it cannot be called a repeat experience. Little did he realize during these revelations that he was not only redefining the future religions of his people but also that he is creating one of the finest religious scriptures in human history.

      There are no firm ideas as to the exact sequence of the revelations as the Quran available for our use is a re-sequenced document with bigger Ayats taken in the beginning and smaller toward the end. But many people believe that the content and horizon of revelations progressively expanded. For example, in the beginning, it was directly addressed only to local people for matters of urgent requirements. But later, the scope covered larger width of humanity and became more universal. The benefit of long years gave him ample opportunity to cover wide range of issues ranging from basic survival to fights and conflicts to inter faith comparisons and spiritual and philosophical matters with Arabians at the focus. Over the years, God's revelations also included befitting replies to the critics of Muhammad and acted more like a running commentary.

The Quran as a Piece of Fine Literature

      For Muslims, Quran is the word of God revealed in Arabic by angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad for entire mankind. For them, it is final expressions from God and there was to be no more Prophet after Muhammad. As it is, Arabic is a very difficult language and it is almost impossible to bring out the forceful meaning once translated into any other language. It is a prose but people familiar with the language maintain that somehow Quran prose carry force of conviction, which would have been expected only out of wonderfully crafted poetry. It is crucial to know that its text was always intended to be read aloud. Even today, with all the changes happened in the world, Quran, for its full impact to pass on to the audience, is still advised to be read aloud.

      Its recitation to a good crowd brings out its features that are impossible to be felt if one decides to just read it silently. This is how Muhammad revealed it to begin with. Best of translation takes away this beauty from Quran. It consists of 114 chapters of varying length that are called suras. It was an oral text but soon got consigned to writing within lifetime of Muhammad. Another striking feature of Quran is its rhetorical focus using the assonance to round off verses.

Central Theme of Quran

      To begin with, it is belief in one God, the merciful God who alone is creator of Heaven and Earth and all things and beings therein and whose omnipotence is to be seen in everywhere in his Signs. Secondly, God had sent a series of believing prophets to their people over the ages, all conveying the same message. Muhammad is supposed to be the last such prophet in the series and he has been sent to Arabians with his message also conveyed only in Arabic.

      Daily prayers (solat) and alms giving (zakat) are two other important pillars of Islam. Interestingly, there is no mention of praying five times a day. Later during his stay at Medina, fasting during the pious month of Ramadan and pilgrimage (hajj) for every capable Muslim was also added as additional pillars of Islam.

      Muhammad was actually not aware that a great religion is going to take shape based on his revelations. He maintained that he is not saying anything new and that he was simply repeating the knowledge that has been with his people for a long time already. Initially; he was not interested to the plight of people outside Quraysh. Neither he planned for developing any theology as, with his background, assuming that he knew about theology let alone create a new one, was a difficult proposition. He also did not harbour any political aspirations and was only interested in Quraysh being guided by his al-Lah to come out of their dire situation and become alive to their core tribal values. His people already knew about their God, he considered his work only to remind them not to forget Him and his gratitude. This was in this respect that he asked his converts to show their physical gesture of surrender by bowing before al-Lah every day. Initially, the Quraysh were very offended to bow like slaves.

      Islam technically means that Muslims are duty bound to create a just and equitable society. It promoted distribution of wealth by regular donations and considered stockpiling of fortune as wrong. Thus daily worship and regular donations became two pillars of Islam. Islam maintained that God can be viewed only through his natural creations which needed to be observed with lot of attentions and with lots of curiosity. This tenet later gave a big boost to successive generations who excelled in the field of natural sciences.

Worship of a Single God

      Subsequent to this, Islam has maintained that the Muslims would surrender to God alone and would not succumb to the false objects of worship—be they deities or values—espoused by Quraysh. In fact, to put any trust in any other being other than God is considered as one of the greatest sins in Islam. Islam maintains "there is no deity but al-Lah, the creator of heaven and earth, who alone can save man and send him the spiritual and physical sustenance that he needs". This was a result of Muhammad's personal experience as he knew that only a single object of worship will have the power to integrate his people and his society. Quran sees God as Absolute and that is why it addresses Him with ninety-nine names or attributes. Ultimately it became the first pillar of Islam. It is called Shahadah, the Muslim profession of faith that "I bear witness that there is no God but al-Lah and that Muhammad is his Messenger".

Islam's Attitude Towards Other Religions

      Islam as professed by Muhammad accepted the existing religions of Jews and Christians and he never encouraged people from other religion to convert to Islam. Somehow, very few people from outside Islamic world would believe that tolerance is a basic tenet of pure Islam. Quran maintained that whatever has been spoken to others by their Gods, we are fine with that. As per Quran, Muslims have to be intolerant to injustice even if it by your own people or your seniors or even rulers. The Quran does not seem to condemn other religious traditions as false or incomplete and believes that every new Prophet brings more clarity and continuity.

      There are several suras that speak about the religious practices and people of Jews and Christians. These suras came subsequent to Muhammad having shifted his base to Medina where three Jewish tribes were already settled with two Arabian clans. During his stay at Medina, Muhammad came in contact with believers of other religions and it was based on his interactions with people from Jews and Christians that he developed his understanding of these religions in a detailed manner. Infact, in order to bring Islam closer to Judaism, there was a time when he even asked his Muslims to worship in the direction of Jerusalem, allowed them to marry Jew ladies and observe holiday on Jew's Day of Atonement. But all that changed later when the Jews of Medina worked against his political survival. His rejection by the Jews was a big disappointment in his life. Later he asked his Muslims to face Mecca again for their daily worship.

      But there is nothing in Quran about Hinduism or Buddhism that were also equally strong religions at that point in history. But it is purely because Muhammad was neither aware about these religions and nor his interest covered any other person outside his own tribes. But looking to his reactions to other religious thoughts known to him, he would have shown great respect to the religions of east and would have spoken about them also in his revelations.

Violence and Islam

      It's true that Muhammad had to participate in wars but those were for the survival of his family and early converts. Historical facts clearly suggest that he neither initiated those bloody confrontations nor participated in those wars with the idea of expanding territory or enhancing his resources or reputation. He did participate in wars but because he was forced into it by others. While subsequent reality of the Muslim world, wars have been used very regularly and entire expansion of Islam as a religion rides over military success achieved by its early followers but Muhammad's action or words or teachings were never expansionists or violent in nature. Islam, through Quran justifies only one type of war and that in self-defense. Aggression was strictly forbidden. In order to limit the agony related to war, once the war there, it was advised that the war should be finished quickly. And as soon as the enemy surrendered or called for peace, Muslims were advised to end hostilities and work for terms of truce. Actually going by scripture alone, one will find more violence in Bible than in Quran.

      The often quoted reference of 'Jihad' is made out as if it means 'Holy War'. That is completely ill founded. Literal meaning of Jihad reads as putting God's will in practice. Considering the conditions in which Islam took shape, no one could have imagined to keep brutal wars out of sight or discussions. Wars were around all the time. Therefore, Islam accepted the reality of a cruel world but called upon all Muslims to additionally prepare on all fronts like social, spiritual, economic and intellectual. Reforming one's own heart and society was considered a bigger 'jihad' while war with enemy only a small jihad. Muhammad's acceptance of wars as inevitable and his dislike for war can be appreciated from the fact that Quran called for retaliation to be in proportion to the act of enemy. A person having place for violence in his heart would not have cared to caution retaliatory action also to be pursued with restraint. A measured retaliation will draw comparison with Krishna telling Arjuna in Gita to fight as his swa-dharma. Islam forbids any fight except in self-defense that means unless attacked by some other force. And it is not only that Muhammad only prescribed so but he also pursued astonishingly non violence policy.

      Another argument made in justifying frequent violence in Muslim world is about their deep grievances and frustrations that are ever escalated by economic, political and social factors prevailing in most part of their presence. One must not forget that entire Arabia has been a violent place and, if history is any thing to go by, unfortunately, may remain so for unknown period in future as well. It only goes to prove that best of religion, sometime, is unable to end the curse on the particular land. Violence and Arabia happens to have co existed for best part of known human history without any quick end in offing.

      One view which gets formed for easier acceptance of violence by Muslims has its roots to Sunna, the example of Muhammad's pattern of behaviour, which is also taken as a important source of legislation in Islam. Its importance lies in the fact that its followers, the Sunnis account for 90 percent of total Muslim population in the world. Sunna and Quran exhort Muslims to emulate Muhammad in all walks of life as the right example. But Sunna also carries encouragement to pillaging and plundering of infidels together with enslaving their children and placing their women in concubinage. The definition of infidel is somewhat porous and leaves room for stretching to suit the intentions of person explaining it or understanding it. In Chapter 9 Sura 5 is reproduced here below:

"But when the sacred months expire slay those who associate others with Allah in His Divinity wherever you find them; seize them, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them. But if they repent and establish the Prayer and pay Zakah, leave them alone. Surely Allah is All-Forgiving, Ever-Merciful." (the reference to sacred months is for the months of Hazz and Umra when Muslims lay down their arms)

      Quran asks Muslims to kill 'kafirs' but such mention has to be understood in correct context of history. This chapter applied to those tribes who were continuously showing hostilities to early converts even after they have migrated to Medina to escape. It was never intended for people of other faiths as Muhammad always called Jews and Christians as "people of the book". Kafir was used to refer to idolaters opposing Muhammad and people converting to Islam in lifetime of Muhammad. But to disrepute Islam, there are numerous instances where Muslim aggressors used their power to crush opponents and took refuge to selected portions of Sunna and Quran to justify their actions as if they were fighting a pious war for strengthening Islam. Undoubtedly Muhammad would never have accepted that as the right example of his life and teachings being practised by his followers.

Condition of Women in Islam

      The condition of woman in pre-Islamic days was very atrocious. Different tribes were having different traditions; practices like female infanticide were very common. But to say that women condition was bad will be too simplistic. As already discussed, different tribes were having diverse customs, languages and lifestyle. North of the peninsula was arid in nature while south was blessed with soil and climate with perfect suitability for good agricultural harvest. While South was largely settled in villages and towns, the North has only few settled locations and rest of the shepherds, known as Bedouins, were continuously on the move. Ring of oases in the west had attracted permanent settlements which relied on agriculture and commerce and spoke Arabia. Mecca was situated on the spice route between Yathrib and Najran and became a caravan city having community of traders. Because violence was common, so were the fears of winner taking hostage of the females of the losers as brides or just slaves.

      Many tribes used to consider girl child as a dispensable liability for the sake of poverty and fear of grace. Famines were frequent and since girls were considered less productive, it was like wasting limited resources to grow them and later send them away in marriage. On the other hand, fear of their getting captured during wars was always hovering around the head. It was obvious under these conditions that women in general were deprived of their most basic rights. It was usual to have a small dig ready near the cot of the pregnant lady where the newly born girl child was to be placed soon after birth and covered with earth. Condition of wives also was no better. Wars were common and so were the death of men. Post the death of husband; the heir apparent (could be a brother or grown up son or any other direct male relative) had full right over the wives of the dead. The heir could take them as wife or could use them as slave.

      But Islam made a big difference in their plight. Actually, the advent of Islam shifted the focus of humanity from Tribe to Individuality. It made a big difference to bring a balancing concept of community and family. Islam instituted the system where everyone was, for the first time in Arabian history, equal irrespective of his or her gender, age, race, language, wealth. Also, each follower was asked to provide priority to moral and religious tradition much before his or her tribal affiliations.

      This brought big relief to the female conditions and Islam certainly looked very positive for women to begin with. Some elite woman enjoyed considerable power and prestige. Women were first converts in Islam. Quran included many provisions for the safety and care of women. The share in property restriction on number of wives that a man can have, forbidding killing of female children, right of divorce, right in inheritance etc. are all burning examples which surely brought cheers for women. But after departure of Muhammad, things did not remain the same for long. Most of us believe that Quran provides for veil system. But in reality Quran prescribes veil only for wives of Muhammad that was also as a mark of respect.

Sects in Islam

      Islam later got divided into two groups called Sunnis and Shias. Unlike in other religions, the split here was based on politics rather any difference in doctrine. It so happened that after the death of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, the Ummayads had seized the Caliphate. This was not accepted by Husain ibn Ali, son of Ali and the only grandson of Muhammad. In a battle at Karbala, Ali got slaughtered by Ummayad Caliph Yazid. Although all Muslims consider this act as immoral but Shias consider Ali as a Hero and are proud that he gave the ultimate sacrifice of his life fighting for justice. They became convinced that only direct descendants of his father Ali should lead the religion. This is how they consider them separate identity than the rest who are called Sunnis. But eventually, more people in number follow the Sunni sect which actually means "People of Traditions of Muhammad"

Sunnah, Hadith and Shariah

      Undoubtedly Islam is influenced by the systems of Jews and Christian both of which grew in the same land and had developed many traditions much before Islam came on horizon. Jews have their code of conduct described in Torah. On similar pattern, Muslims also developed their own book on code of conducts based on Quran and the life and teachings of Muhammad. The first such guiding principle for Muslims is called 'Sunnah' which literally means a path, a method, a way which is prescribed as normative for Muslims to follow as proper example. These religious practices got established by the Prophet among his companions and have been passed to followers by the consensus of generations. These religious practices have mostly originated from the religion of Ibrahim and the Prophet has made revisions to them or some additions where ever thought appropriate. The established Sunnah is taken at par in reliability with the Quran because it has been transmitted in the same way As such, the Quran and the Sunnah remain as Muslim's only primary sources of understanding Islam. Sunnah was to be followed for fulfilling divine injunctions, religious rites and moulding life in accordance with the will of God. To compare with Hindu systems, Sunnah can be looked as close to epic Ramayana where life and works of Lord Rama provide exemplary behaviour for other human beings to follow and get guided.

      Later, based on verbal narrations attributed to the companions of the Prophet who narrated statements or stories about the Prophet, Hadith came in vogue. Hadith is based on verbal records, collected much after death of Muhammad, and is more of a corpus of reports of the teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammad. The Hadith has reached Muslims through individuals or a few narrators in generations and as such is more of hearsay than genuine recordings by first hand experiences. That makes Hadith not as reliable as the Quran and the established Sunnah. Therefore, points mentioned in Hadith needed to be verified and understood under the light of the Quran before drawing firm conclusions. These can be loosely compared to later Puranas in Hindu systems in terms of their collections. Incidentally, the time of composition of Hadith and Puranas are also roughly similar.

      Lastly; we have the Sharia Law, which, like Manu Smriti, deals with topics like moral code, religious law, crime, politics, economics as well as personal codes including hygiene, diet, etiquette and fasting. Adherence to Sharia, which is also known as Islamic law; has served as one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Muslim faith historically; and through the centuries Muslims have devoted much scholarly time and effort on its elaboration. Others have left its interpretations in the hands of qaizis and Imams, which, at times, land their interpretations getting criticism.


      Islam has seen great successes soon after its initial spread. No one can deny the fact that it has its followers spread in more than 120 countries. As per some estimates, world's Muslims population by the year 2030 may be around 2.2 billion up from current level of 1.6 billion riding on the faster growth rate than non Muslims. As per Wikipedia, based on 2011 studies, 62% of Muslims are based in South and South East Asia with Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh accounting for around 70% of them. The Arab world, which was home for Islam, now accounts for only 20% of the total population. Undoubtedly; Islam has seen fastest growth in number of followers in the entire history of humankind. Its impact on India and hence on Hinduism is but unavoidable. Hindus have reasons to closely watch on all developments within Islam to gear for any unfavourable development.

      Faith of Islam today faces profound crisis. Its believers from main streams and adherents of radical ideologies are confronting each other like never before. Traditions of Islam were based on respect for differing religions of other people but today one can put across blatant examples where a few ideology driven Muslims are siding with violence as a justified way of forcing others to fall in line. These developments are a great cause of concerns to world at large and have far-reaching implications on the peaceful coexistence of people following other religions. Muslims themselves have a role to play to find an end to such radicalization as they themselves have been the largest target of causalities from these violent incidents.

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