The Historical Guide: Islam

The word “Islam” is a noun derived from the infinitive of a verb meaning “to accept”.

A Muslim is someone who submits or commits himself to Islam.  A question of worldview or perspective: a community of like minded people who have committed themselves to a particular view of God. Muhammad, from this perspective, is not a founder or originator of this view, but rather, a messenger of this view. Thus, Muhammad’s biography of relatively lesser importance than the revealed message: the message embodied in the miracle of Qur’an.

The Qur’an itself is the central foundation on which the Islamic faith builds itself. The central creed of Islam or Shahada is the utterance: la ilaha illa Allah; Muhammad rasul Allah (There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah).

Little historical record remain of the early inhabitants of Pre-Islamic Arabia : Indigenous sources remain in the form of legends, and aside from a few inscriptions nothing in writing has been found. Arabs are mentioned in the ancient chronicles of Persians, Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews : Kingdoms in southern part of the peninsula from around 2nd millennium B.C.E. Pre-Islamic Arabs possibly represented at least two ethnic/cultural groups separated by the vast desert (Al Rub al Khali) in central Arabia: the northerners were primarily nomads, while the inhabitants in the south possessed a more settled urban civilization. Southern Arabian economy based on some agriculture and trade: well-known in the Mediterranean for frankincense and myrrh (produced from gum resins extracted from trees that grow only in southern Arabia and Somalia).

Judeo-Christian beliefs familiar to the population: Himyarite rulers converted to Judaism in 525 C.E.

Rulers of southern Arabia controlled the important trade routes of the southern Mediterranean : Mecca and Medina were important stops between southern Arabia and Palestine, Damascus Poetry as the principal source of information : Tribal prince poet Imrul Kais (540?) instrumental in establishing the classical Arabic language.

Social organization centered around the clan with emphasis on unswerving tribal loyalty and collective responsibility.

Sheik/Sayyid as the elected head of the tribe chosen by the elders : Authority and prestige based on morality. The sheik would lead the tribe in battle, act as a conciliator when peace was restored, and mediated tribal blood feuds

Pre-Islamic Religious Culture also reflected the social dichotomy of the region : Astral cult in southern Arabia, along with nature worship.

Three goddesses worshipped in Mecca: al-Lat (mother goddess), al-Manat (goddess of fate),al-Uzza (morning star).

Allah as the distant creator God, revered by Muhammad’s tribe, Quraysh Lesser spirits, beneficial angels as well as harmful jinns

Sacred Space:

Kaba: Cube shaped meteorite built into the holiest shrine in Arabian peninsula with images of deities in its interior (reference in Roman historian Diodorus Siculus, 60 B.C.E.)

Mecca as the major pilgrimage site in Pre-Islamic times : Four months of the year designated for pilgrimage. No violence or warfare permitted in the area.

Confluence of economic and religious interest in Mecca proved beneficial to the Meccan elite: Mecca’s importance as pilgrimage site undiminished after the decline of the southern commercial culture.