Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
Muhammad was a member of a tribe called the Quraysh, one of the most powerful groups in Arabia. The Quraysh had control of Mecca, which in addition to being the center for polytheism became the most important stop along what soon became the primary trade route in the Arabian Peninsula. The Quraysh thrived on Mecca's expanding commercial economy. Hostilities between the Persian and Byzantine Roman Empires had ruined trade along the traditional overland route from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. A new route was needed, and the coastal plain of Arabia conveniently lay overland from the ports of Yemen. Mecca had the advantage of sitting at an intersection, where the north-south route for the transfer of goods from the east crossed another major route that led east into the Iraqi markets. The Quraysh gained a great deal of wealth and prestige from this particular set of circumstances, and it was initially to the Quraysh and the Meccans that Muhammad brought the message of Islam. The message required social and economic changes that the Quraysh at first resisted, leading to years of hostility and persecution. Yet it was Muhammad who ultimately united the Arabs of the peninsula into a single nation.
Trade with the regions to the north brought the Arabs into contact with Judaism and Christianity. Moreover, there were settled communities of Christians and Jews in the peninsula, and Arabic-speaking Jewish tribes. As a result, the Arabs were familiar with these two religions, and Muhammad's closely-related teachings. Teaching that Islam is the climax of monotheistic faith, Muhammad reached out to both Jews and Christians, seeking alliances and hoping to win converts to his message of social and religious reform.
Muslims and Christians enjoyed debate and dialogue, particularly over theological issues, and Muhammad invited Christians to pray in his mosque. Initially Muhammad and his followers followed the Jewish Arabs by facing Jerusalem for prayer, but shortly after arriving in Medina, Muhammad received a revelation instructing the Muslims to face Mecca when praying. This simple change served to distinguish Islam from Judaism, despite the strong affinities between the two.
1. Was Islam a “new” religion? Why or why not?
2. How did Allah compare to other gods in the time of Islam’s origin?
3. What is the Kaaba?
4. Why were the Quraysh the first to hear Muhammad’s message? Why did they resist?
5. Describe the relationship between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Is interfaith dialogue possible?