Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
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.
Still, monotheism was not unknown, as there were Christian and Jewish tribes in Arabia. They too had received guidance from God's messengers, recorded in sacred writings such as the Torah (Moses), the Psalms (David), or the Gospel (Jesus). They were "People of the Book," or people who possessed sacred scripture. But from the perspective of Muhammad and his followers, God's message in these scriptures had become corrupted, whether by time or self-interest. A fresh revelation was needed, one that was incorruptible, and Muhammad was called to deliver it. Although Muhammad was a prophet to the Arabs of the 7th century, the message was timeless and intended for all humankind. It was God's final revelation, and thus Muhammad is called the last prophet, or Seal of the Prophets.
This revelation, which was to become the foundation of Islam, had its beginning in the Night of Power, which many traditional accounts date to the night between the 26th and 27th of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. Muhammad often went to the caves of Mt. Hira near Mecca for solitary meditations and vigils, and on this night, he experienced a profound and disturbing vision. There are several versions of the story. They differ in the details, but the meaning is the same. An angelic being, later identified by Muhammad as Archangel Gabriel, appeared to him and commanded him to "recite" in the name of God. Muhammad did not respond immediately, and the angel took him by the throat and shook him as he repeated his command to "recite." Again Muhammad did not react, so the angel choked him until Muhammad agreed to do as he was told. So began Muhammad's years as a prophet, first to the Meccans and ultimately to all of Arabia.
This decisive event took place when Muhammad was forty years old, ca. 610, and the revelations continued until his death in 632. The Quran is the record of the messages Muhammad recited in the name of God. It forms the basis of the religion of Islam, which by the time of Muhammad's death had united nearly all the people of the Arabian peninsula into a single polity with common beliefs and purpose. And it is the inaugural event for the establishment and spread of a religion that is now the second-largest religion in the world, with over one billion followers. Muslims live in almost every country in the world, and are the majority in forty-eight countries stretching from north Africa to southeast Asia, with the greatest populations concentrated in south Asia and Indonesia. Despite the great diversity in languages, customs, lifestyles, and beliefs, Muslims share their love for the messenger and dedication to the message.
1. Where did Islam get its name? Why are its followers called Muslims?
2. What are some possible narratives for the beginning of Islam?
3. Why is Abraham important to Islam’s history?
4. How do Muslims see themselves as different from other “people of the book”?
5. Who was Muhammad? Describe his role in the Night of Power.