Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
"Islam" is an Arabic word that means "acceptance," "surrender," "submission," or "commitment," and is closely related to the Arabic word for peace (salaam; in Hebrew, shalom). Adherents of Islam are called Muslims, literally, those who make peace. Muslims are those who surrender to the will of God (Allah, in Arabic) in every aspect of their lives and enjoy the resulting peace with God and each other. The prophet Muhammad gave the name Islam to the religious movement he founded.
There are several events that could be considered the beginning of Islam, including the life of Muhammad, or the Hijra. If we seek the beginning of Islam in a sacred event, then perhaps it lies in the Night of Power (laylat al-qadar), when Muhammad received the call to be God's messenger. This article briefly sets the context for this decisive event, and notes its essential meaning in Islam.
In the Islamic worldview, the origins of the faith lie in God's initial creation of the universe and everything in it, including the First Parents, Adam and his wife. For a time, all creatures lived in perfect peace, but then the First Parents were tempted by Iblis and disobeyed God's rules. As a result, Adam and his wife were banished from Paradise, though God reassured Adam that the banishment was temporary. God promised to send messengers to Adam and his progeny, and these messengers would bring God's guidance. Adam was reassured that those who follow God's guidance will have no reason to feel fear or grief (surah 2:31-38).
One of God's most important messengers was Abraham (Arabic, Ibrahim), who was called by God to leave his home in Ur (in present-day Iraq). Abraham (whose name means "Father of Many Nations") is revered in the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the ideal model of pure faith in the one true God. Abraham's islam was exemplary. He followed God's instructions in everything, and was even willing to sacrifice his own son because God had commanded it. The sacred story of Islam tells of how Abraham and his son Ishmael (Arabic, Ismail) built the Kaaba (literally "House of God") in Mecca, the center of Muslim worship.
Muhammad, the final messenger sent by God, belonged to the Quraysh, the tribe that controlled the sacred sites of Mecca, including the Kaaba. At the time of Muhammad's birth, ca. 570 C.E., the culture of the Arabian peninsula was generally animistic and polytheistic. Shrines with idols proliferated, especially in Mecca. The Kaaba was filled with idols that had been placed there by the different tribes and clans of Arabia. Allah, which means quite simply "the God," was the highest god, but only one among many.