The seventh-century Middle Eastern world was a dynamic one, containing many different religions, peoples, and political systems. Bounded by two fading giants – the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires – and crossed by trade of goods and ideas between India, Asia, Europe, and North Africa, the region was ripe for a new power. In 610 CE, Muhammad of Mecca in the tribal backwaters of Arabia began to receive revelations from God. By his death in 632, the religion he founded had grown into a major power with a sphere of influence over the entire Arab world. Islam could have been just another startup religion in the turbulent seventh-century Middle East, but Muhammad’s particular surroundings, his supporters, his personal energy, and the message of Islam itself helped it develop into a major, durable force.
Muhammad grew up in Mecca, a powerful, relatively prosperous city in Arabia. Mecca hosted the Ka’ba, an object of veneration and pilgrimage site, and its inhabitants – particularly the tribe of Quraish, caretakers of the Ka’ba, of which Muhammad was a member – were accorded respect and safe passage across much of the often-dangerous Arab world. Mecca was also diverse; Muhammad and his contemporaries were familiar with “the prophetic and messianic expectations which also shaped the experiences of Arabian Jews.”
Thus it was no particular surprise for this well-spoken, meditative man to claim prophethood as well. The strong presence of Judaism and Christianity in the Arab world also meant that Muhammad’s claim to the Abrahamic tradition was understandable by his contemporaries, facilitating communication and persuasion of religion.
A few early supporters were key to the spread of Muhammad’s message. His first wife, Khadija, was an affluent businesswoman who supported him financially after he gave up running her trade caravans for preaching. Khadija also drafted her cousin, the Christian scholar Waraqa, to assess Muhammad’s first experience of revelation. “Holy! Holy!” Waraqa cried when he heard the story. “Lo, he is the prophet of this people.”
Waraqa’s recognition helped Muhammad accept his mission and gain credibility as he began to preach. Khadija’s public support and private encouragement of Muhammad also helped him draw his early following.
Muhammad’s own personal attributes were crucial to the success of his message. Muhammad possessed “a political and administrative acumen that has been so unusual in the religious leadership of mankind but which was wholly subservient in the Prophet’s case to a spiritual vision.”
Muhammad was a great strategist in his quest to further Islam. When he faced dangerous opposition in Mecca, he was able to take advantage of the opportunities Medina provided. In 622 the Medinans invited him to act as leader of the divided tribes of their city, impressed by the “moral prestige and the statesmanlike ability of the Prophet.”
Muhammad sought to establish Medina as a Muslim base from which to win Mecca and extend his influence further as well as an opportunity to establish the idealized Islamic community.
Upon entering Medina, Muhammad established the Compact of Medina, a treaty and mutual defense pact. “The God-fearing believers shall be against the rebellious or him who seeks to spread injustice… The peace of the believers is indivisible. No separate peace shall be made when believers are fighting in the way of God. Conditions must be fair and equitable to all.”
The Compact promoted unity in the name of God against a common foe as well as communal responsibility for wrongdoing. It extended fair treatment to all in Medina, regardless of religion or tribe. It used the religious vocabulary that the Medinan Jews understood to begin to reform the city in the image of Islam.
However, the peace of Medina did not last. Faced with disloyalty in their stronghold, the Muslims drove out or attacked the non-Muslim tribes of Medina, making it a solely Muslim city. Muhammad considered massacring his former allies unavoidable if he was to fulfill his strategy, “the taking of Mecca without bloodshed to serve as the pivotal point for the spread of Islam.”
As the seat of the Ka’ba, an important religious relic, and a nexus of regional power, Mecca was the natural heart of Islam. Muhammad’s ruthless drive to take Mecca was characteristic of his overall drive to succeed in the growth of Islam and spread of God’s message. Muhammad had an imperative to succeed; “it is a part of the Qur’anic doctrine that simply to deliver the Message, to suffer frustration and not to succeed [in its spread], is immature spirituality.”
Actions of Muhammad that may seem politically driven or un-Islamic were only to further his ultimate goal. Muhammad certainly walked a narrow path between strategic compromise and moral capitulation, but it seems that he was able to keep his religious motivations foremost.
Outside of the context of war, the characteristics of Islam helped it grow. Early Muslim conquerors did not force those they encountered to convert or die; many of these groups gradually assimilated into Islamic society but were able to contribute to society even without converting. The Muslims showed tolerance and humanity to the Meccans as well when they returned to the city in 628 as victorious conquerors. Muhammad needed to preserve Mecca’s infrastructure and population in order to take over its regional authority; conveniently, Islam’s mandate of mercy justified his decision to his vengeful followers. Tolerance also allowed Islam to absorb foreign structures and peoples as the state expanded. The Byzantine and Sasanian bureaucracy imported at the conquest of those empires under the Umayyads helped Islam take on the mantle of empire, an uncomfortable transition for this decentralized tribal coalition.
The unity Islam promoted went beyond tribe, an ideology which helped it grow into a multiethnic empire. To be a Muslim required “a commitment to an identity grounded in Muhammad’s religious message rather than in traditional tribal relations.”
Islam’s populist roots and message of brotherhood helped it develop strong, stable communities. The emphasis on social justice discouraged class conflict. All who were able were required to pay a tax, zakat, to help the poor. All were accountable to the community for their behavior; no one was powerful enough to escape justice, whether in this world or the next. Another characteristic of Islam that proved crucial to its continuity was its ongoing social and historical dialogue. The Qur’an, the work at the heart of Islam, is an oral tradition, not a book; studying the Qur’an requires dialogue between worshippers, scholars, and God. Muslims are also in dialogue with history and tradition over what Islam means in their contemporary surroundings. Islam is dynamic and adaptable, not static, helping it thrive in a changing world.
As a new movement promoting social justice and egalitarianism in a hierarchical, traditional society, Islam faced extraordinary opposition in its formative years. Like Christianity before it, Islam was blessed with a charismatic, visionary, driven leader who devoted his life to promotion of his message. Muhammad’s spiritual inspiration and diplomatic skills made him a great leader in peace and war, able to address the major challenges Islam faced and take advantage of opportunities. His divine imperative to succeed in the spread of Islam was ultimately self-fulfilling; it gave him and his followers the energy to establish a strong Islamic community.